IT’S no surprise that Kirat Assi wants catfishing to be made a criminal offence.
The radio presenter fell victim to the most extraordinary scam — one lasting almost ten years and involving 50 fake online personas.
Acting without pity, someone Kirat trusted drew her into a web of lies, leaving her jobless, friendless and on the brink of madness.
At the centre of the scam was Bobby, a handsome cardiologist who eventually became Kirat’s romantic partner, despite them never meeting in real life.
Bobby was a real person but his online identity had been stolen by the scammer, who turned out to be Kirat’s younger cousin, a woman called Simran Bhogal.
When Kirat, 42, found out, she collapsed. “I couldn’t understand it,” she told me. “I just kept screaming at her, ‘Why, why did you do this? Ten years of my life. You’ve stolen ten years of my life. Why didn’t you stop? How could you be so sick?”
Catfishing is a term used to describe luring someone into a relationship by creating fake social media profiles. Many people treat it as a joke, or think it couldn’t happen to them.
As the host of the hit Tortoise Media podcast Sweet Bobby, which has been downloaded more than three million times and tells the story of Kirat’s deception and search for justice, I hold a very different view.
I’ve spent months talking to Kirat as well as to lawyers, ex-police officers, and psychologists. The experience has convinced me that catfishers can and do cause real and significant psychological harm.
I first came across Kirat’s story last June. A good source handed me a witness statement over lunch, telling me it contained details of “the craziest case” he’d ever seen. As I read the 140-page document that night, I realised that he was right.
In more than 15 years of journalism, I’ve never seen anything like it.
The statement detailed every step of the catfishing operation — from 2009 when Kirat, from London, was first contacted on Facebook by someone called “JJ”, to the moment in June 2018 when Simran came round to her house and confessed to everything.
Some of the details were, frankly, surreal. At one point, Bobby died and then came back to life, claiming he was in a witness protection programme having been shot in Kenya. He developed life-threatening illnesses, which meant he was stuck for long periods in hospital in New York.
For years, marketing expert Kirat and Bobby were just online friends. Kirat was in her early thirties, with a good job and her life ahead of her.
Bobby was just a small, albeit crazy, part of it. But eventually they became closer and, in 2015, began an online relationship — with Kirat in London and Bobby in New York.
Bobby became a master of excuses. He promised Kirat he would come to London to be with her. But something always happened at the last minute — usually a medical emergency.
MASTER OF EXCUSES
He also told Kirat that he couldn’t have video calls because his phone was broken, or because witness protection rules didn’t allow it.
Lots of people have asked me — and Kirat — why she put up with all of this. How could she have a relationship with someone she’d never even met? Why didn’t she demand a video call? How did Simran convince her that she was talking to a man?
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Kirat doesn’t shy away from answering these questions. In fact, we dedicated a whole podcast episode to hearing her answers. For me, though, three things stood out.
First is the sophistication of the scam. Like a novelist, Simran’s characters interacted with each other as well as with Kirat. They had their own lives; their own personalities. Sometimes the sheer deviousness takes my breath away.
On one occasion, Bobby asked Kirat to help him choose some clothes for his baby son. They went online and picked out some clothes together.
A couple of weeks later, Kirat saw pictures of Bobby’s real son wearing the clothes the pair had chosen together.
How could that have happened if Bobby wasn’t real? Yet the catfisher had reverse-engineered it all.
Simran, it seems, somehow managed to get access to photos of Bobby’s real son. Presumably by Googling, she then worked out where the clothes he was wearing came from. And then tricked Kirat into thinking she had chosen the clothes herself.
Another big reason why Kirat believed the scam was real was because Simran told her she had met Bobby face to face in New York, when she was on a business trip.
Since Kirat trusted her cousin completely, you can begin to see why that meeting made everything else seem more credible. Finally, it’s important to understand that in the later years of the deception — when Bobby and Kirat became partners — Bobby became incredibly controlling.
He was jealous and angry. He monitored Kirat’s movements and told her which friends she could and couldn’t see. He became furious if she saw a male doctor, or if she used a “provocative” emoji on Facebook.
When they argued, he would often have a “heart attack” or another medical emergency with Kirat on the other end of the line.
Bobby — fake or not — was incredibly manipulative.
Dr Charlotte Proudman, a barrister specialising in gender-based violence, told me that Bobby was so controlling that he — or more accurately, Simran — might have breached the criminal law.
Since 2015, “coercive and controlling” relationships have been illegal. According to Dr Proudman, the police should have investigated Simran for this offence. It didn’t matter that Bobby wasn’t real, she said, adding that the case seemed to fall “squarely” within the legislation.
But as I was to discover, the police took a much narrower view. After Simran’s confession in 2018, Kirat spent months trying to persuade them to investigate, only to be told this year that what happened to her is not a crime.
For me, the police’s reaction is probably the most frustrating aspect of this whole story. I’ve seen documents which suggest that Hounslow Police never considered whether Simran breached the law around coercive and controlling relationships.
To my knowledge, they have never questioned Simran herself. This meant that even after the confession — when Kirat was trying to pick up the pieces of her life — Simran was able to get on with hers, going on holiday and even enjoying a promotion at work.
Since Sweet Bobby came out last October, more than two dozen catfishing victims have contacted either me or Kirat with similar stories about how they were scammed.
They include an actress with more than seven million Instagram followers who missed her best friend’s wedding because of a catfisher.
Like online fraud, I now believe that catfishing can happen even to intelligent people who think they are careful. Kirat’s case has made me feel more sympathetic to victims of such scams — and convinced me that more needs to be done to protect them.
And Kirat agrees. “Police need to be educated,” she says. “We need to allow victims to speak up without fear of judgement and retaliation.”
She also believes police should receive more training around which existing laws might apply to catfishing cases. Even though catfishing isn’t a standalone criminal offence, perpetrators may still be in breach of laws outlawing controlling relationships, stalking and harassment.
And if that doesn’t work, then, like Dr Proudman, she favours outlawing catfishing outright. “While it may not be a whole solution,” Kirat says, “It would act as a deterrent”.
Having won a settlement in her civil case against Simran for harassment, misuse of private information and data protection breaches, Kirat is continuing to challenge the police decision to not pursue her case.
There is a chance, albeit a small one, that the case might be reopened. I’ll post any developments on my Twitter page, @aleximostrous.
As for Simran, she has remained stubbornly silent. The only communication I’ve ever had from her was through her lawyers, who told me that it was a “family dispute over events that began over a decade ago”.
Her statement continued: “As far as I’m concerned, this is a private family matter that has been resolved. I strongly object to the numerous unfounded and seriously defamatory accusations that have been made about me, as well as details of private matters that have been shared with the media.”
Simran’s refusal to speak is frustrating. I’m sure she has her own story. I still don’t understand what motivated her — an A* student and headgirl, who went on to work at two of the country’s biggest financial institutions — to deceive her cousin and friend so completely.
Or, indeed, how she did it. Did she have a drawer full of burner phones? Or a map of all her many characters?
I’d still like to hear Simran’s story. It’s the one missing piece of the puzzle. And it might even make people more sympathetic to her, if they knew a bit more about her motivation.
Until then, I hope that Kirat’s story raises awareness about catfishing — and its potential to do serious harm.
Whether a change in the law is needed — or just more rigorous training for police and internet providers — victims need greater protection. They deserve it.
- Sweet Bobby, a six-part podcast from Tortoise Media, is available on Apple and Spotify. Alexi Mostrous is Head of Investigations at Tortoise Media.