This article was written by Sally Crosswell

Sally Crosswell has a Bachelor of Laws, a Bachelor of Communication and a Master of International and Community Development. She also completed a Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice at the College of Law. A former journalist, Sally has a keen interest in human rights law.

Is Catfishing Illegal? (WA)


Catfishing itself is not illegal but elements of the activity could be proscribed by legislation in Western Australia. Catfishing is the act of using a fake online profile to befriend a vulnerable person and scam them into providing money in the promise of love or a relationship. The money is almost impossible to recover and there is often long-lasting psychological damage to victims. Studies have shown those most at risk are usually intelligent, financially comfortable,  middle to older-aged adults, who are lonely, isolated and vulnerable to approaches for love or friendship.

The typical stages of catfishing

The “catfish” uses a fictional name or steals the identity of a real, trusted person such as a professional working abroad or a military officer, to set up a fake profile o  an online dating website or social media. The person promotes strong emotional attachment with the victim in a short period of time, then suggest contact is moved from a secure website to a more private channel such as instant messaging or email. They then establish an “exclusive” relationship with the victim, with intense and frequent communication, and they often declare love for the victim.

After the catfish has cultivated trust between the parties and created a sense of obligation from the victim, requests for money or banking details from the victim are made. The perpetrator sometimes claims they will visit the victim but can do this only if the victim pays for the travel. Requests for small amounts of money generally switch to large amounts, prompted by a story of tragic or desperate circumstances such as unexpected hospital bills, theft of personal documents, or being stranded overseas.

Offences linked to catfishing

Catfishing can encompass a range of offences across several sections of the Criminal Code Compilation Act 1913. Some of these are outlined below.

Fraud

The offence of fraud in Western Australia is defined under s 409 of the Act.

The provision states a person is guilty of a crime if they, with intent to defraud, by deceit or any fraudulent means:

  • obtain property from a person;
  • induce a person to deliver property to another person;
  • gain a financial benefit;
  • cause a detriment, financial or otherwise;
  • induce any person to do something they are lawfully entitled to abstain from doing;
  • induce any person to abstain from doing something they are lawfully entitled to do.

Penalties range from 2 years to 10 years imprisonment, plus fines.

Stalking

The offence of stalking is defined under s 338E of the Act as when a person “pursues another person with intent to intimidate”.

“Pursue” includes to:

  • repeatedly communicate with a person whether in words or otherwise;
  • repeatedly follow the person;
  • repeatedly cause the person to receive unsolicited items;
  • watch or visit someone’s home or workplace.

“Intimidate” includes to cause physical or mental harm, apprehension or fear; or to prevent or hinder someone from doing something, or to compel someone to do something they are lawfully entitled to abstain from doing.

Penalties range from 12 months to 8 years imprisonment, plus fines

Money laundering

The offence of money laundering is defined under s 563A of the Act. It states a person who “engages, directly or indirectly, in a transaction that involves, or receives, possesses, conceals, disposes of, or deals with any money or other property that is the proceeds of an offence”, is guilty of a crime. The person is liable to 20 years imprisonment.

Sometimes a catfish will send laptops or mobile phones to a victim with a request for the items to be sent elsewhere. Or they will ask instead for the victim to buy the goods and send them somewhere. Another catfishing tactic is to have the victim accept money into their account and transfer it on the catfish’s behalf. This can sometimes be accompanied with a promise to repay “administrative fees or “taxes” or an offer to share in the profits destined to flow from the transfer.

Those who have accepted or transferred money via catfishing may have unwittingly committed a crime such as money laundering. They may also have placed themselves in danger by unknowingly becoming part of an international criminal network.

Sexual offences

A catfish can use fraud to engage in sexual activity. More serious charges apply if the conduct involves children. Under s 204B of the Act, it is an offence to use electronic communication to procure for sexual activity, or expose to indecent matter, a child under 16. The offence carries a penalty of 5 years imprisonment if the child is aged under 16, and 10 years if the child is aged under 13.

Other offences

The establishment of a fake online profile can carry liability for a range of charges, such as defamation and infringement of intellectual property.

The offence of defamation is covered by s 345 of the Criminal Code Compilation Act 1913. It states a person who, without lawful excuse, publishes defamatory matter about another person, knowing the matter is false, and with the intent to cause serious harm or ignorant to the fact that it will cause serious harm, is guilty of a crime and liable to 3 years imprisonment.

Catfishing can also involve violations of intellectual property laws; for instance, when the catfish uses copyright material, such as a stolen photo. It can also involve using a false document or forgery to set up a fake identity.

If you need help to deal with internet fraud or any legal matter, please contact Armstrong Legal.

WHERE TO NEXT?

If you suspect that you may be under investigation, or if you have been charged with an offence, it is vital to get competent legal advice as early as possible. Our lawyers are highly specialised in criminal law and will be able to guide you through the process while dealing with the various authorities related to your matter.

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