Is Catfishing a Crime?
Catfishing is an increasingly more common phenomenon. It gained fame through the movie and MTV series of the same name and has recently hit the headlines in Ireland through the so-called ‘GAA catfish’ as discussed on the Two Johnnies Podcast.
But what exactly is catfishing and is it illegal?
Catfishing is when someone uses images and information (often taken from other people’s social media accounts) to create a new identity online – sometimes using an individual’s entire identity as their own. Newly created social media accounts can then be used to damage the reputation of the true owner of the identity, or alternatively any fictional identities that are created using other people’s images and information can be used to form dishonest relationships online.
Catfishing per se is not illegal, people can pretend to be whoever they like on the internet and indeed some people seem to revel in this opportunity. However there are instances where catfishing can cross the line from morally questionable behaviour to outright illegality. Where a person is duped into giving money or goods to someone as a result of the catfishing then the catfish could be prosecuted for deception under the Theft & Fraud Offences Act, 2001.
Catfishing can also become harassment in certain situations. Harassment is prohibited under s.10 Non Fatal Offences Against the Person Act, 1997 which defines it as causing someone alarm or fear by persistently following, watching, pestering, besetting or communicating with him or her. However this law has been complimented by The Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act 2020 (commonly referred to as “Coco’s Law”) which came into force in February 2021, and is now the primary piece of legislation governing various types of online harassment.
Harassing someone online, via email, text/ direct message, tweet or video is now governed by section 4 of the 2020 Act and is punishable by a prison sentence of up to 2 years. The advantage of using this act, rather than the 1997 Act, is that the harassment doesn’t have to be “persistent” – i.e. a single post can be enough for the offence to be committed.
The 2020 Act also criminalises what is commonly referred to as ‘revenge porn’. The sharing of intimate images without a person’s consent is criminalised by section 2 of the 2020 Act described, and can result in a prison sentence of up to 7 years. For this offence to be committed, the person sharing the material (which can be a photo or video) must intend to cause harm and/or distress to the person who features in the material.
If intimate images of a person are taken and/or distributed without the person’s consent, but are not done so with the specific aim of harming their subject, then this would be a more minor offence under section 3 of the 2020 act, and punishable by a prison sentence of up to 12 months. This is designed to cover the taking/sharing of content where the subject is not personally known to the person publishing it, meaning the element of “revenge” is missing.
It would appear that where a person shares intimate images with a ‘catfish’ they are doing so under false pretences and arguably the 2020 Act could apply.
Advances in technology have presented significant challenges to the Oireachtas and often it has been slow to react to these advances. The 2020 Act would certainly appear to be a step in the right direction.