Can I Sue for Being Catfished?


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The story of Manti Te’o caught the attention of millions around the world as the professional football player’s story of his girlfriend, her death and the ultimate discovery of the falsity of it all. Similar stories that popped up in the media and in the life of the leading character in the MTV show of the same name have also brought this new phenomenon to the forefront of the public.

What Catfishing Is

Catfishing occurs when one person pretends to be another person by using another person’s image or other characteristics to trick the victim into getting involved in a romantic relationship with that person. In most situations, the person pretending to be another individual uses social media accounts with the other person’s images and other information. The relationship may be extended through telephone calls, social media contact and other non-physical forms of communication in order to prevent the victim from discovering that the individual who is contacting him or her is not the same as the person the individual is depicting.

Potential Legal Theories

Because this term and series of events are new to the country, there are not specific laws that specifically account for catfishing. However, existing state or federal laws may provide a basis for recovery. Potential legal theories that catfishing may implicate are explained below. Because each case is different and relies on state laws that may require a showing of different elements, a victim may wish to discuss his or her case and circumstances in his or her state.

Fraud

Fraud is often both a criminal charge and a tort. Fraud claims may be premised on the fact that a person materially represented himself or herself, another person reasonably relied on this misrepresentation, the person knew that the representation was false and intended the other person to rely on it and the other person was injured in some manner. When perpetrators of catfishing schemes intentionally act like another person and initiate contact and a romantic relationship with another person, the first few elements may not be difficult to prove. However, the last element – injury of some sort – may be more difficult to prove.

Some scenarios in which this crime or tort may be successful is when the perpetrator uses a position of trust in order to acquire money, credit or other things of value from the victim. If the victim pursues a criminal case against the perpetrator, the court may order the perpetrator to pay the victim restitution. If the victim pursues a civil case, he or she may be able to receive compensation for his or her financial losses and potentially punitive damages if the conduct was particularly egregious.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

If there was no financial gain involved in the situation, the victim may pursue a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. This legal claim is successful when the victim can prove that the defendant’s conduct is extreme and outrageous and that conduct resulted in severe emotional distress in the victim. In order to prevail with this claim, it would require showing that there has been psychological damage because of the conduct and that the perpetrator’s conduct was actually outrageous enough to shock the senses. In cases like Manti Te’os’ where the perpetrator acted like the romantic partner had tragically died or in situations in which the conduct goes beyond the normal scope of a catfishing case, a plaintiff may be successful.

Some states also recognize the tort of negligent infliction of emotional distress. This tort requires a less serious mens rea and may be used in place of a case that has issues with showing intentional conduct.

Misappropriation of Likeness

The individual whose pictures or social media content are used may have a claim against the perpetrator for misappropriation of likeness. This tort requires showing that the perpetrator used a protected attribute of another individual in an exploitative manner without the consent of the person to whom the attribute belonged.

Defamation

The person whose image is misused may also have a claim for defamation if the perpetrator makes false statements that harm the reputation of the victim.

Stalking or Harassment

Depending on the specific circumstances of the case, a claim for stalking or harassment may also be available for either victim of the catfishing scheme.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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