Catfish and the Law

Are there any Legal Remedies for Catfishing?

Certainly, it feels like there should be. Catfishing is a relatively new term in the American vocabulary but it’s quickly becoming a household name. The term refers to individuals who use fake identities, pictures, and profiles online to begin relationships with people. It originates from a documentary turned MTV show that investigates internet relationships that turn out to be fake. Often, these fake relationships are of the romantic nature despite the fact that the two involved may have never met in person or even talked on the phone. These romantic relationships can become just as powerful as they would in reality and the effects of discovering that the one you have grown to love is a fraud are just as devastating. So, if you are a victim of catfishing are there any legal remedies available to you?

The answer is not clear cut, it depends.

According to Aron Mefford, an attorney for Merritt Webb, the most likely scenario where a catfishing victim can recover damages is when the catfisher uses the position of trust to obtain money, credit, or other gain at the expense of the victim.  “The catfishing victim might seek the assistance of law enforcement authorities in pressing charges against the catfisher for obtaining property by false pretenses,” says Mefford, “If a criminal prosecution is successful, the victim could be rewarded restitution by the criminal courts.” The victim could also sue in civil court for fraud if the catfisher used his or her relationship to obtain money, credit, or other gains.

If there is no apparent financial gain on the part of the accused catfisher, the victims would be better off seeking a claim of Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress. But in these cases, the victim would have to demonstrate for the courts that the catfisher behaved an outrageous manner.

“IIED cases are very difficult to successfully litigate and the outrageous conduct must be of a kind that “shocks the senses”, not just a mere prank,” explains Mefford, “A catfisher pretending to be a friend or romantic interest isn’t likely to qualify [as outrageous conduct] for an IIED suit. In the recent case involving Manti Te’os, the catfisher not only pretended to be his girlfriend but also convinced him that she had died. It is this crossing of the line that begins to meet the standard of outrageous conduct required for an IIED lawsuit.”

If Te’o could show that he manifested actual symptoms requiring professional treatment, he may have a successful IIED suit but it’s important to remember that in catfishing, there are two victims. The target of the hoax and the person who’s identity was stolen. In Te’os’ case, a 23 year old marketing coordinator in Los Angeles and acquaintance of the accused catfisher may be entitled to a legal claim under the law. “Civil claims for misappropriation of likeness are available, as well as claims relating to defamation of character where the catfisher is making false statements of a defamatory nature,” says Mefford.

If you do watch MTV’s show on Catfishing, you’ll understand that each individual situation is different. Similarly, legal remedies for a victim of catfishing, and how best to advance those claims, will depend on the circumstances of a situation. An experienced attorney can walk his or her client through their individual situation to find a solution. Speaking to an experienced attorney can help a victim find a solution that is reasonable and appropriate for a case.

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