The rise of the catfish

Social media giants and dating apps must do more to help protect their users from being catfished by aggressive and harmful predators, warns Ann Coffey MP

The internet has bought about massive positive changes but it has also brought complex problems of how to protect people from those who want to deceive and harm them online.

This week I used an adjournment debate in the Commons to highlight the growing phenomenon of ‘catfishing’ on the internet. Catfishing involves someone taking over another person’s identity online, pretending to be them by using photographs and names, and then using social media to trawl for unsuspecting victims.

At the moment there is no specific law against stealing another person’s identity. That must change as it causing so much unhappiness to many people.

We need a new law to make it crystal clear that if someone takes another person’s identity and poses as them online then they are committing an offence.

The extent of catfishing was first brought to my attention by one of my constituents, Matt Peacock. Peacock is a male model from Stockport, who has had his identity stolen online for the past four years by a catfish who has used Peacock’s pictures on dating websites to create fake social media profiles to entice women.

Peacock’s family have been put under terrible strain and his wife has been contacted on many occasions to be wrongly told that her husband was cheating on her, asking women for sexual photographs and videos. Photographs of Peacock’s nephews and nieces have also been used by the catfish who claimed they were his children in an attempt to appear as ‘caring’ to single mothers he was trying to seduce.

Moreover, the women who the catfish contacted using the false profile have been devastated to be  deceived over a long period and at least one said she felt suicidal. However, despite creating all this upset the police told Peacock there was nothing they could do as no notifiable crime has been committed by the ‘catfish’. This was despite Peacock obtaining a taped confession from the ‘catfish’.

I have also been contacted by other victims of catfishing, including Anna Rowe, who started a petition Change.org in February 2017 calling for it to made illegal to create a fake online profile with the intention of using it to entice others into a sexual relationship. So far she has collected nearly 42,000 names.

Rowe’s catfish created a fake online persona using Facebook accounts, emails, Skype, Snapchat and Instagram accounts to create a background story of a man divorced for 15 months and looking for a meaningful long term relationship.

Since publicising her case, Rowe has been contacted by many other women who said they too had been deceived and left devastated by the same man.

In a third case, a mother who was worried about the awful effect being catfished for four months had had on her son, contacted me. He was so upset by the emotional strain it put him under that he has made a video on YouTube to warn other young people of the dangers.

Of course, it is vital to balance freedom and responsbilty on line so that we can enjoy all the benefits of the internet but we must try to mitigate the harmful practices that the internet has allowed to come about.

A change in the law would be the most effective deterrent to catfishing but social media giants and dating apps must also do more to protect people. They are making efforts and using artificial intelligence to detect fake accounts helps to deal with the enormous challenge that the sheer volume of them poses to identifying and removing them.

I believe the government’s new internet safety charter and the forthcoming green paper is an opportunity to arrive at an agreement with companies about how to make safer online sites.

It gives a chance for a real partnership between legislators and technology to be developed to protect users from aggressive and harmful predators and for subsequent legislation to outlaw catfishing.

I was heartened that Matt Hancock, the culture minister, who responded to my debate, assured me that catfishing would be examined as part of the government’s internet safety strategy.

He said that we could work together to ensure that victims of catfishing have their voices properly heard and accepted they need a ‘strong response‘ to ensure that the law is properly and appropriately up to date to deal with catfishing.

The internet develops at an extraordinary pace and it is vital that we as politicians keep an eagle eye on developments so that we can make sure the law keeps up to protect our constituents from coming to harm.

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Ann Coffey is member of parliament for Stockport. She tweets at @anncoffey_mp

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