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Catfishing and Social Media

Volume 627: debated on Tuesday 18 July 2017

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of catfishing and social media.

Catfishing is a growing phenomenon. The internet has brought about many positive changes, but it has also brought the complex challenge of safeguarding people from those who want to deceive and harm them online. A catfish, as everybody knows, is a predator fish that scuttles along the bottom of the ocean feeding on smaller and more vulnerable fish. A human catfish will use another person’s online identity to create a fake account and will then try to form relationships online, over social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat, or dating apps such as Tinder. The victim believes that they are communicating with the person whose identity the catfish has stolen. The catfish often deceives another person into an online romance, perhaps getting them to send sexually explicit images or money. However, there is always more than one victim, because as well as those who are deceived by the catfish’s fake identity, the person whose identity has been stolen is also a victim.

One in three relationships now starts online. The public should not have to continuously contend with the prospect that the person they are in communication with is not who they say they are. I want to explore how we can better protect victims of catfishing, including the person who has had their identity stolen.

I have been approached by a number of people who have been catfished. Their cases are all different. The extent of catfishing first came to my attention last year when I was informed by the Lady Detective Agency that one of my constituents, Matt Peacock, had had his information used by a man who created fake social media profiles in order to meet women online. Mr Peacock, a male model, has had his identity stolen online for the past four years by the catfish, who has used his pictures on dating websites to lure women. The catfish has also used photographs of Matt’s nephews and nieces, claiming that they were his own children in order to appeal to single mothers as being caring.

Matt’s family has 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. Matt got so frustrated that he contacted private detective Rebecca Jane Sutton in Manchester for help. Within 48 hours, they tracked down and met the catfish, who admitted using Matt’s identity to deceive dozens of women. The man apologised, which, crucially, Matt and Rebecca captured on tape. He also revealed names of other women he had deceived and promised Matt that he would stop doing it. However, just four days after the confrontation, a woman the detective agency had warned about the catfish rang to say that he had contacted her again, pretending to be Matt and asking for graphic videos. Being unable to resolve this, the detective agency contacted Stockport police and handed over all the evidence, including the full taped confession, but the police said that they would not be taking any action because they did not consider any notifiable crime to have been committed. According to Ms Sutton, the police officer said, “This is the same as going into a bar in the 1980s and pretending to be a millionaire when you actually work on the bins. There is nothing we can do about it.”

But this is not the 1980s. It is 2017, and there is a world of difference between exaggerating one aspect of yourself and creating an identity online that has been stolen from somebody else. Many people tell white lies about their age, occupation or height to seem more attractive to a potential partner, but the difference with catfishing is in the totality of the misrepresentation and the creation of a completely stolen identity with the intention to exploit.

At the moment, there is no specific criminal offence of catfishing. Matt and Ms Sutton are campaigning for a new law to make it illegal to use another person’s identity online. Matt has told me about his disappointment when the police said that no crime had been committed:

“It affected me and my whole family. We spoke to one girl who the ‘catfisher’ had targeted, pretending to be me. She told me she had felt like committing suicide after being deceived by this man. I vowed then to do all I can to sort this out. I do not want a phone call from a girl who has harmed herself after falling for this fraudster who is pretending to be me. Something needs to be done and if people knew pretending to be someone else online was an offence then they might be put off.”

Matt believes that the only way forward is through a new law. He contacted Facebook, which asked him to prove who he was and eventually took the fraudulent page down. However, the next day, the catfish had created another profile, again using pictures of Matt to lure women in. Matt says:

“People of my generation live their lives through social media and trust in an entity that is massively flawed. The law has not kept up and I am determined to do something about it.”

I have also been contacted by other victims of catfishing, including Anna Rowe, who started a petition in February 2017 to make it illegal to create a fake online profile with the intention of using it to make sexual contact. So far, she has collected nearly 42,000 signatures. Anna’s catfish used Facebook accounts, emails, Skype, Snapchat and Instagram accounts to create a fake identity with the background story of a man divorced for 15 months and looking for a meaningful long-term relationship. She eventually discovered that she was in a relationship with a man who had used stolen profiles and was married. Since she publicised her case, Anna has been contacted by many other women who have been deceived by the same man.

In a third case, I was contacted for help by a mother who was worried about the traumatic effect that being catfished had had on her son. The 20-year-old young man, Axel Grassi-Havnen, had been catfished for four months. He has been so upset by the emotional strain it put him under that he has put a video on YouTube to warn other young people to be aware of catfish.

What can be done? Technology is limited in what it can do to deal with persistent catfish who are determined to deceive others and are uncaring of the trauma and emotional distress they inflict. Having a better understanding of privacy settings on Facebook and sharing images only with friends rather than making them public gives some protection, but that does not help people with high public profiles or those who are inexperienced in using social media.

Facebook has launched an initiative in India to counter personal photos being stolen. It has introduced profile picture filters to mark the photograph, because research has shown that a photo marked with a filter is 75% less likely to be stolen. There are now a number of websites for searching someone’s information to confirm their social media profiles and suggest whether they are catfish. A number of dating websites have dedicated fake accounts teams; Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat have measures in place so that an account that impersonates somebody can be taken down. 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; Facebook announced an initiative in that area earlier this year. Nobody wants to stop people setting up anonymous accounts—they may want to do so to express an identity that they cannot reveal in real life, because of prejudice or discrimination—but there is a difference between that and stealing somebody else’s identity in order to exploit another person.

However, it is very challenging for technology to set up enough barriers to stop the determined catfish. I welcome the work that is already being done by social media websites with internet charities such as the UK Safer Internet Centre and Get Safe Online in promoting awareness of potential risks online and measures that can be taken to prevent individuals from being exploited by catfish. However, more can be done by the social media giants to be proactive in safeguarding people from harm—for example, regularly flashing warning notices about catfish.

The Government’s new digital charter and the Green Paper on internet safety provide an opportunity to arrive at agreements with companies about how to make websites safer. I am pleased that the Government have proposed to work with technology companies and charities to develop the digital charter, which will

“seek to balance freedoms with appropriate protections to improve safety on line, particularly for children”.

It is important that we have initiatives by Government and by the companies that will work, that are acceptable to users and that develop partnerships with the police and other agencies on the sharing of information.

There is a gap technologically at the moment, but there is also a gap legally. Action Fraud, the UK’s national fraud and cyber-crime reporting centre, estimates that two thirds of all romantic fraud cases begin on online dating websites. In the UK in 2016, there was a record number of romantic fraud cases being reported, with a record £39 million thought to have been given by victims to those they believed to be romantic partners online. These were all cases that involved prosecution for committing financial fraud online, but in the three catfishing cases that I have outlined, it is the emotional trauma caused by someone creating a fake online account that has been particularly damaging.

As I have indicated, there is no specific criminal offence of creating a false profile online. However, such conduct might—depending on the circumstances—fall within one of about six more general criminal offences. The most pertinent to catch catfish include malicious communications. Under section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988, it is an offence for a person to send to another person an electronic communication that conveys

“information which is false and known or believed to be false by the sender”.

Sending false information via electronic communications on social media could fall within this offence, but only if the sender can be shown to have had the purpose of causing distress or anxiety. That would be difficult to prove, and the Crown Prosecution Service would be reluctant to prosecute.

Under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, it is an offence for a person,

“for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another”,


“send…by means of a public electronic communications network, a message that he knows to be false”.

A person who sends a social media message that they know to be false—that is, by pretending to be someone else—could fall within this offence, but only if the sender had the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another, which again is difficult to prove.

In 2016, the CPS updated specific prosecution guidelines for cases involving social media communications. The guidelines say that prosecutors should begin by conducting an initial assessment of the content of the communication and the conduct in question, and classifying them in one of four categories. The fourth category refers to communications

“which may be considered grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false”.

However, the guidelines say that cases that fall within category 4 will be subject to a high evidential threshold and in many cases a prosecution is unlikely to be in the public interest.

We need some clarity in the law, and that could be achieved if stealing another person’s identity, as happened in the case of my constituent, was made an offence. Of course, the argument for adding intent would be that an absolute offence would catch people who were just playing a prank on a friend and were not intending to cause harm, unlike the catfish. However, it is for the police and the CPS to decide on prosecution, and if the accompanying prosecution guidance made clear the scope of the offence, that concern would be overcome.

Creating a new offence of catfishing would have the very desirable effect of making people less likely to steal somebody’s identity online, and it would certainly enable the prosecution of persistent catfish, who cause others such distress, including my constituent and his family over so many years. As yet, we do not even know how many victims that man preyed on or the extent of their emotional distress.

The law has a purpose in reflecting what people know to be wrong and enforcing that through penalties against the person who breaks the law. Catfishing is wrong. As I said earlier, there are huge positives about the internet and the digital revolution, such as instant access to information, the ability to keep in touch with friends and family across the world, and the ability to share interests with people thousands of miles away. There are currently 37 million users of Facebook in the UK, which is 65% of the population over the age of 10. That is a massive number and it is growing. The challenge is to harness the positives of the internet and balance them with the need to protect and safeguard people from predators. That is not an easy task. People need to be informed and be responsible, but we as a Parliament have a role, as have social media platforms. The digital charter and the Green Paper provide an opportunity both for the development of a real partnership between legislators and technology companies, in order to protect users from aggressive and harmful predators, and for subsequent legislation to outlaw the menace of catfishing.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing the debate. I know that this is an important issue for her and for her constituent, Mr Peacock. I am glad that she has brought it to the attention of the House, and I welcome the opportunity both to raise awareness of the problem and, as she has done, to set out clearly the legal position and what might be done about it.

The UK is a world leader in the fight against online abuse, exploitation and harmful content. We take the approach of working in partnership with the technology industry, using legislation where necessary, and we also work with groups across society to ensure that behaviour that would not be tolerated offline cannot thrive online. That is the principle that underpins the internet safety strategy, which is part of the wider digital charter that the hon. Lady mentioned. I listened to her contribution, and I will endeavour to address all the points that she raised in my response.

I will start by saying that I agree with her about the vital need to balance freedom and responsibility online, so that we can enjoy all the benefits of the internet but try to mitigate the harms and harmful practices that the internet has allowed to come about.

Like the Minister, I first pay tribute to the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) for an absolutely superb exposition not only of her constituent’s case but of the wider situation.

Members listening to and participating in this debate would like the Minister to address a couple of points. First, there is no excuse whatsoever for people taking someone else’s identity online. Such behaviour is reprehensible and creates two potential victims. The hon. Member for Stockport outlined how the law has proved to be absolutely deficient so far in this area. I am not one for jumping to legal remedy, but the lack of legal redress for her constituent is obvious, and the Government need to look at that situation carefully and sympathetically.

That is an important point, and I will come on to it later.

The internet brings benefits, but also the new challenges that we are considering. The central point is that fraud, whether it is committed online or offline, can cause serious damage, and fraud includes identity theft. Victims can suffer both financial and emotional harm, and we know that fraudsters not only make money but exploit social relationships. Both those things need to be taken seriously.

The Fraud Act 2006 already includes offences that would apply to anyone who assumes a false or non-existent identity to commit fraud. In particular, section 2 sets out the crime of fraud by false representation, which would cover a person pretending to be someone else for the purposes of making a gain for himself or another. That obviously applies in the online world, too. The use of a false identity for fraudulent purposes is a crime, but identify theft in and of itself is not a criminal offence, which speaks to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr Lord) raised about taking someone else’s identity. That is the situation as we find it.

Perhaps I should go through some of the things the Government are considering to try to address the problem. First, there is the question of raising awareness of identity fraud. Identity fraud and wider cyber-crime are important issues. We need to ensure that people understand the safer behaviours they can use online. The hon. Member for Stockport mentioned the UK Safer Internet Centre and Get Safe Online, which provide advice on relationship scams and online dating issues. Get Safe Online is an independent organisation funded by industry and Government to ensure that there is a place to go for high-quality advice. Often even basic research, such as checking social media sites or using search facilities, can help in checking whether a person is actually who they say they are.

We expect websites, including social media companies, to respond quickly to reports of harmful content and abusive behaviour on their networks. That includes having easy-to-use reporting tools and robust processes in place to respond promptly when abuse is reported, including the suspension or termination of the accounts of those who do not comply with acceptable use policies. As the hon. Lady said, social media companies are taking some action using people and artificial intelligence, but it is clearly not solving the whole problem.

We have taken action to tackle online harms through legislation where necessary, including in relation to cyber-stalking, harassment and perpetrators using grossly offensive, obscene or menacing behaviour. We have introduced a new law making the fast-growing incidence of revenge porn a specific criminal offence, which is what the hon. Lady is seeking. The most relevant legislation is the Malicious Communications Act 1988, which contains the offence of sending material, including electronic communications, to another person that is false and known or believed to be false by the sender, with the purpose of causing distress or anxiety to the recipient or any other person to whom it is intended to be communicated. The Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 made changes to that offence, and to section 127 of the Communications Act 2003. The changes were aimed at ensuring that people who commit those offences are prosecuted and properly punished. Where there is emotional abuse, it might be captured under the domestic abuse offence of controlling or coercive behaviour. That is the legal position.

The Crown Prosecution Service has revised its guidelines on social media to incorporate new and emerging crimes being committed online. Advice was added to the guidelines about the use of false online profiles and websites with false and damaging information. For example, it may be a criminal offence if a profile is created under the name of the victim with fake information uploaded that, if believed, could damage their reputation and humiliate them. Whether the CPS prosecutes any offence will depend on it meeting the evidential and public interest tests in the “Code for Crown Prosecutors”.

The Digital Economy Act 2017 requires us to publish a code of practice for social media companies. We have not yet published it, but we are required to, so we are working on it. The code of practice will include guidance on arrangements for notification by users; the process for dealing with notifications; terms and conditions in relation to those arrangements and processes; and the giving of information to the public about the action providers take against harmful behaviour. We will be consulting on that shortly.

The hon. Lady said that no one is seeking to end anonymity. It is interesting that on some social media sites anonymity is not allowed or made very difficult, but that is not true across the board. For instance, we welcome Facebook’s real name policy, which requires all its users to provide their real and full name when signing up. Claiming to be another person, creating a false presence or creating multiple profiles goes against Facebook’s terms and conditions, but that is not the case for all social media sites. Policing such things is incredibly important, but there is collaboration between social media sites and dating sites to link up online presences. For example, Tinder allows users to link their accounts with other forms of social media, such as Facebook or Instagram. That can help, and we welcome such things, but it is not necessarily for Government to tell social networks how their facilities should work. The very nature of social networks is that they are designed for people to share information, but all social networks are expected to act responsibly to protect the privacy of users. Getting the balance right between freedom and safety online is a key part of the internet safety strategy and the digital charter.

I have been listening carefully to the Minister’s remarks. A minute or so ago, I think he said that if the victim—in other words, the person whose identity has been stolen—has reputational damage, that is potentially a criminal offence. I cannot think of anything worse than that damage. In this case, it was proven that this man’s identity was taken and that multiple women—perhaps many women—were contacted and asked for graphic and sexual images of themselves.

I see the hon. Lady is nodding. Either the law is deficient, or the police and the CPS are giving the wrong advice to her constituent. Things need to be tightened up.

As I said, the CPS guidance in this area has been updated, because technology moves fast and the CPS has to update its guidance and interpretation of the law from time to time. My hon. Friend is exactly right in what he said and in reporting what I said, which will be in Hansard, but I said it as a conditional—such activity could be a criminal offence, because it depends on potential prosecutions. It is not for this place to determine guilt or innocence; it is for this place to determine what the law should be.

The guidance was updated fairly recently, and we need to see the impact of that, but my hon. Friend should rest assured that we put in place the internet safety strategy to look broadly at the impact of the internet and ensure that we protect the freedom, innovations and magnificent improvements that it brings to many areas of life, while doing that in a safe way that protects people from harm. Freedom exists within a framework of protecting others from harm, hence why the internet safety strategy will look into all these issues. Since I am responsible for that strategy and have heard the debate today and looked into the case in preparing for the debate, I will ensure that the issue of catfishing is considered.

There have been movements in this area, and I look forward to working with the hon. Member for Stockport and my hon. Friend the Member for Woking to ensure that the victims of catfishing, who can suffer both financial and emotional harm, have their voices properly heard. They need a strong response to ensure that the law is properly and appropriately up to date to deal with the challenges that the internet has brought in this area and in this case. We have to learn the lessons. I hope that I have provided assurance that we take harm caused online extremely seriously, and I look forward to working with the hon. Lady to find the solution.

Question put and agreed to.