Crime Pulse
visual representation of a catfishing online romance scam
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What Is Catfishing–And Is It a Crime?

This week, a Kentucky woman who is serving 15 years in prison for embezzlement made an astounding claim.

She wants to be granted “shock probation,” where an offender spends a small portion of their sentence behind bars and is then released on probation for the remainder of her time. Why should she be granted this leniency? Because Bridget Johnson believes herself to be a victim of a heartless catfishing scheme.

What Is Catfishing?

Love scams have been around for a long, long time. In fact, America’s first widely known serial killer, H.H. Holmes, used the personals column in the newspaper to lure wealthy, lonely women into his murder palace in Chicago. On the flip side, law enforcement officers may pose as other people, including minors, online to catch criminal offenders.

The term “catfishing” comes from the 2010 documentary. In a nutshell, it describes a person who creates a fake online persona in order to manipulate people. For example, you might think you’re talking to a 30-year-old male model… but instead, you’ve been chatting with a 40-year-old woman or a group of three teenage guys.

The Sad Case of Bridget Johnson

Bridget Johnson, now 59, allegedly met the man of her dreams on Match.com. He asked her for financial help, and before she knew it, Johnson had given him $250,000 of her own money.

That’s when things broke really bad. Her online paramour kept asking for more money, and Johnson turned to embezzlement to give it to him. Ultimately, she stole $3.8 million from the Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau, using her role as the agency’s finance director to access the cash.

Johnson claims that she should be seen as a victim and granted early release. However, the judge disagreed. What she did is a felony. But the man who duped her out of millions might not have done anything against the law.

Law Lags Behind Online Criminal Activity

It is not technically illegal to pretend to be someone else online. Using stock photos to misrepresent yourself on a dating site isn’t a felony or even a misdemeanor. Stealing other people’s photos from dating sites or social media is murkier, legally speaking. That could be considered copyright infringement or defamation, depending on how the scenario plays out.

When the catfisher starts asking for money on false pretenses, that’s fraud. Typically, they try to get the money in the form of wire transfers or gift cards that are not as easy to trace.

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to bring these criminals to justice. Even if the perpetrator is based in the United States (which they usually are not), it can be challenging and expensive to track down their identity. Law enforcement tends to focus more on educating victims to prevent catfishing–by the time you’ve already been duped, it might be too late to do much about it.

If you meet someone online and they ask for money, run!

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Shantay Lockwood