“Catfishing” – who is at risk?

The issue of “catfishing” came into the news recently when a 21 year old from Newry in Northern Ireland was charged with attempting to blackmail over 300 people in a “catfish” blackmail scam. Of the victims identified, 35 were in the UK showing the scope and scale of the offences and the complexities of investigating these crimes.  In addition to blackmail income, the perpetrator can sell images and in this case the court heard the accused earned £700 in three weeks selling images of children.

“Catfishing” is a scam where the victim is lured into a relationship online by someone who has created a fictional persona.  It is often used to create a relationship which will result in trolling activity but can also be used for financial gain.  The perpetrator uses their online persona to ingratiate themselves into the life of their victim and can then request financial help for some fictional issue or, having tricked their victim into forwarding sexually intimate pictures, they can blackmail that person by threatening to release the pictures to other friends or wider on the internet.

While the criminal aspects of fraud, extortion, blackmail and creating, receiving or distributing images are all obvious the risk to the wider community is not so clear.

Catfishing could be part of a bullying campaign in a school where some pupils trick a fellow pupil with a fake relationship.  Workmates could entice a colleague into some sort of online activity as part of a campaign against them.

If harm occurs to the pupil or to the employee there may well be serious implications for the school or the employer.  The ease of access to social media sites through school and employment WIFI mean that some thought may need to be given as to widening the scope of training and supervision.  Bullying was previously an activity easily monitored as it occurred only when the parties were in close proximity.  Now the bully or bullies can operate 24 hours a day from their desks or in corridors where they can watch the impact but also from their homes or anywhere else.

The definition of school bullying and workplace bullying may come under scrutiny in courts just as the scope of vicarious liability has been expanded over the years.  School Governors and Trustees and employers may face claims from victims or even from families if the victim takes their own life.  Insurers may also look at what cover they provide and consider chronological or geographical restrictions for work related bullying to limit it to activity within a specific workplace or during certain working hours.

Social media and the imminent arrival of a 5G network mean the risks are expanding at a rate the law and insurance cannot achieve.  This will inevitably create areas of confusion into which the criminal and court will have to stray.

Canavan_F-BLM7-web Written by Fintan Canavan, partner at BLM

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