Growing numbers of people are now turning to the world of online dating to find love. According to internet dating site E-Harmony, five million people have tried to find their companion online and by 2031 more than half of all relationships will have begun online.
However, what if the person you felt a growing connection towards, wasn’t exactly who they claimed to be?
Deception is a prominent risk that comes with meeting people online whether it be through online dating or social media sites. Catfishing is one of the biggest forms of deception, it is when an individual creates a false identity or identities to form romantic relationships online.
The term ‘catfish’ was brought to the public’s attention following the release of the American documentary film Catfish. One of the filmmakers, Nev had himself fallen victim to catfishing. The film became a TV series which now airs on MTV in the UK where Nev and fellow filmmaker Max tell the stories of couples who have met through the web but are yet to meet in person. The show reveals secrets and surprises as partners discover the true identity of people they have been conversing with.
Catfishing affects both the person being deceived and the person who unbeknownst to them have had their identity stolen. Although many people are successful in finding love online, catfishing provides a very dark side to starting relationships via the web and it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.
Matthew Peacock was the victim of catfishing after he had his identity stolen for four years by individuals who created numerous amounts of fake profiles on sites to attract and lure women. Matthew, who is a model from Stockport approached his local MP, Ann Coffey for advice and help. Surprisingly, catfishing still remains legal in the UK. Since Matt’s case, Coffey has taken a stand against catfishing and is calling for a new law to be brought in to make it an illegal offence.
Coffey outlined, in a Green Paper on the Internet Safety Strategy, the effects the catfishes had on not just Matt, but also his family. “Matt’s whole family have been put under tremendous strain. His wife has been contacted on many occasions and wrongly told that her husband was cheating on her by asking girls and women for sexual photographs and videos.”
She went on to describe the further extent that catfishes went to in order to create a fake life. “The catfish also used photographs of Matt’s nephews and nieces, claiming they were his own children in order to appeal to single mothers as being caring.”
Matt has since set up killingcatfish.com; he sought help from ‘The Lady Detective Agency’ and was successful in finding the very people who stole his identity however the police did not take action. The main page of the site boldly reads, “we simply will not sit back and allow the modern day epidemic of identity theft to affect any more innocent victims. We are on a journey to change the UK law. Catfishing is not acceptable, This could happen to YOU!”
Coffey described victims of catfishing who have approached her as being traumatised by their ordeals, she says: “Catfishing should be made illegal, the industry should be made to do more to protect its users by introducing more robust ID verification procedures.” So is it time for both the industry and the government to take action and do more to protect people online and more shockingly why has it taken them so long?
Victims spoke of the sluggish response of sites and dating agencies in removing fake profiles. However, even when a fake profile is removed catfishes are able to adopt a different disguise and potentially join other dating sites and platforms to begin their deception again, which appears to be one of the main, uncontrollable problems.
Some online sites have taken steps in cracking down on fake profiles. Social media sites like Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter have implemented measures in order to remove them.
Some dating websites have also put in similar measures with teams ensuring profiles impersonating people are taken down. Victims also told Coffey that they felt the only way to deter manipulative catfishes was to make it an offence to create a false identity on the internet. They felt that criminalising the act of catfishing would not only put pressure on the catfishes themselves but would also place more pressure on sites to ‘clean up their act’.
The online dating phenomenon is growing rapidly. A YouGov poll in 2016 stated that half of 25-39-year-olds know at least one couple who met on the web. With numbers growing, is it time to introduce tougher measures when it comes to identity and online dating and could this be a way of stopping catfishing altogether?
“Sites, including dating sites, should be forced to introduce more robust ways of checking the identity of people who use their sites including scanning passports, driving licenses and other documents and using the photo-recognition software,” Coffey says.
She proposes a league table be created in order to show users how safe websites are and reveal those that are not doing enough to protect them. However, Coffey is not the only person striving to take action against catfishes.
Anna Rowe launched her own website ‘catchthecatfish.com’ in a bid to give advice and help on how to keep safe whilst online dating. Anna fell victim to catfishing after meeting a man that she believed to be called ‘Antony Ray’.
Antony told a string of lies and used a tactic called ‘lovebombing’, something Anna now understands to be used by ‘psychopaths, sociopaths and narcissists’ in order to hook targets. The term love-bombing refers to when a manipulative individual tries to control another person with ‘bombs’ from the moment they start communicating with one another.
According to Business Insider warning signs of love-bombing include a person declaring their love for you early on, receiving excessive amounts of gifts, care and promises for the future.
Anna had been online dating on and off for a number of years, following the break-up of her relationship with the father of her children. “I’ve only ever had long-term relationships, having married my first ‘real’ boyfriend who I started to date at 16. I’d had four long term relationships over the years before I met ‘Antony Ray’,” she says.
She had successful relationships with people she met via online dating. “I had tried most of ‘the big’ dating sites over the time, starting with Guardian Soulmates and the likes of Match, E-Harmony, Elite Singles etc,” she says.
After signing up to dating site Zoosk for a month her friends directed her to another popular dating app, Tinder, “I was cautious having heard some reviews of it being a hook-up app, but many of my friends knew people who had met on there and even of marriages. It was attached to Facebook, in that you could see if a profile had mutual friends with you.”
Anna felt at ease after seeing familiar faces from other sites as well as friends of hers who were in the police. Anna made her intentions clear on the site. “It was very important to me to know there was some longevity to the match before meeting them as my time was precious and money short, so arranging a date immediately with someone who I wasn’t going to be able to hold a conversation with was not an option for me,” she said.
Anna went on three dates before matching with Antony in mid-August 2015. At one stage, however, she thought that communication with Antony had ended. “We chatted still but not constantly at that point, then he didn’t return a message and I thought that was it.”
She felt that Antony appeared to be genuine. However, after adding him on WhatsApp Anna noticed that his profile picture differed slightly to his Tinder profile, “I sent a message saying ‘that’s a different pic…’, he replied almost instantly saying ‘and…’.”
From then on, Antony began to call and text Anna many times and the couple finally met for the first time. “We chatted for nearly three months before we met in person. He seemed nice, after three weeks we chatted on the phone and talked about our likes, dislikes and what we were looking for in a relationship.”
Antony made many claims throughout his time talking to Anna, which meant he had to leave the country a lot. At the point of their six-month anniversary in 2016, Antony vanished. He said he had to take care of his seriously ill mother, and also made other claims that he was at work and with his children. After growing increasingly suspicious, Anna made it her mission to find out more about the man that she felt she knew so well.
In a shocking turn of events, Anna discovered that Antony had a mobile phone he used for affairs and a secret e-mail, Skype account and Facebook page. The image on Antony’s Tinder profile turned out to be Bollywood actor Saif Ali Khan who looked a lot like him. Anna found Antony back online, unaware it was her he was talking to he fed her the exact same speeches.
“I realised he was a player at best, and then that his original profile pic wasn’t him, and then that he didn’t exist as ‘Antony Ray’,” she said.
Anna started to worry that her private details may have been stolen. “I didn’t know if he had collected bank details etc. from my house – he’d been left alone there, so I needed to find who he was and I needed to get some control back.” Six weeks later she finally found out that the real man behind ‘Antony Ray’ was a solicitor working for London City Airport.
Anna told Artefact: “Before this happened to me I had never heard of a ‘catfish’ before. I’d only had good experiences so it was a huge shock.” Anna has since dedicated time to research: “So many people haven’t got a clue what this behaviour is and lots of people won’t even know they have been catfished.”
Unfortunately, no action was taken against the man who catfished Anna because he hadn’t broken any laws, but this has not stopped her fight. “I am being backed by law clinics in the country who are helping me to write potential legislation to put forward as well. This is a fast-growing behaviour that is being used for more and more abusive intentions, whether financial, emotional or sexual,” she said.
I asked Anna how she felt when she found out no action would be taken, “To be honest I was in disbelief that even though I had managed to track this man down myself, so it would have been less work for the police and resource wise, I was being told there was nothing they could do.”
As a result of going public with her story in order to help others, Anna lost her job as a teaching assistant, she said: “Life for me is odd right now I guess. I’m kind of in limbo.” A lack of legislation and guidelines is leaving many victims feeling helpless: “There is only a tiny tiny percentage of these cases reported for this reason and people suffer in silence. It’s the others that keep me motivated to do this because I’ve been thanked so many times for ‘fighting the fight’ for them too.”
For now, it seems the victims of catfishing like Matt and Anna are taking matters into their own hands to ensure others don’t have to go through what they did at the hands of those deceiving. Anna said, “I have met the most amazing people since this happened and I’ve become an accidental campaigner. I’ve set up my website and I’ve been contacted by amazing organisations to work together and try to make things safer for others. What happens next for me work-wise I don’t know but I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing for now.”