The new MTV television phenom show, “Catfish”, and the recent Manti Te’o Notre Dame football scandal involving a player’s supposed online relationship, have left us begging the question: what are the legal ramifications for ‘catfish’ing someone [creating a fake profile]?
If you have not seen the television show “Catfish”, it features individuals who believe themselves to be in online romantic relationships. All of these individuals, through blind faith, naiveté, or something else, unquestionably fall in love with someone they have met through various social media sites (think Facebook). However, the person they have fallen in love with conveniently never has access to a webcam to chat, sometimes even purports to not have access to a cell phone to talk, and certainly never meets the individual in person. “Catfish” tells the story of how the person fell in love and assists them in meeting the real person they fell in love with online. Unfortunately, when the digital love interest shows up – surprise surprise – it is never the person it is expected to be. Instead, the poor victim is met face-to-face with usually a friend, an enemy playing a sick joke, or an ex-lover. Heartbroken and thoroughly embarrassed, the featured individual confronts the trickster and is informed of the motives behind the creation of the fake profile.
With the popularity of the television show “Catfish” and the Manti Te’o scandal, I began wondering what people can do legally if they become entwined in their own fake profile/relationship situation. Apparently, depending on the circumstances, people do have legal recourse for being duped online.
LEGAL RECOURSE IN OTHER STATES
Many states have enacted laws or expanded existing laws to include recourse for individual’s effected by a fake profile. The following are a few highlights:
LOUISIANA: Louisiana recently passed a law which makes “maliciously impersonating someone” online a misdemeanor. If the fake profile or impersonation is done “with the intent to harm, intimidate, threaten or defraud another person”, they could wind up with a misdemeanor charge against them. Anderson, Evan. “ New Online Impersonation law could land offenders in jail.” August 17, 2012. http://www.fox8live.com/story/19193938/new-la-social-media-law-could-land-you-in-jail.
CALIFORNIA: California’s law against using a fake profile requires a bit more to prosecute someone. In California, it is not enough to just “assume the persona of someone else.” The person must also “do something while pretending to be that person that could get that person into legal trouble.” Masnick, Mark. “Careful With That Fake Social Networking Profile; If You ‘Personate’ Someone, You Can Go To Jail.” June 2, 2010. http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20100601/0401229640.shtml.
TEXAS: Texas has a similar law : The law makes it a felony to use the “name or persona” of another person, without their permission, to create a page or send a message on a social networking website “with the intent to harm, defraud, intimidate, or threaten any person.” Dunn, Sydni. “Texas girls arrested, facing felony charges for making fake Facebook profile.” July 26, 2012. http://www.splc.org/news/newsflash.asp?id=2415.
LEGAL RECOURSE IN ILLINOIS
So where does that leave us, in Illinois? In the case of Janna St. James, who held herself out to be a fireman, Jesse Jubilee James, on an online message board, the fake profile creation left her with a lawsuit alleging fraudulent misrepresentation. St. James met Paula Bonhomme on the message board and Bonhomme was instantly attracted to James’ animal-loving nature. Bonhomme and James carried on a relationship for three months where Bonhomme spoke with members of James’ family and many friends. Three months into the relationship, Bonhomme discovered that James had passed away from liver cancer. A few months later, Bonhomme learned that not only did St. James impersonate Jesse Jubilee James, but impersonate all of his family members (including a young son) and friends that Bonhomme had spoken with as well. Schmadeke, Steve. Suburban Woman is Sued After Vast Hoax.” April 25, 2011. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2011-04-25/news/ct-met-suburban-hoax-20110425_1_tiny-bit-rubber-duck-firefighter. Prior to the St. James scandal, the fraudulent misrepresentation cause of action was a tool exclusively used for businesses to receive compensation for false statements. However, the Court in the St. James matter expanded fraudulent misrepresentation to include false statements made by one individual to another where there was emotional and financial destruction.
WHAT IS FRAUDULENT MISREPRESENTATION?
Fraudulent misrepresentation is a legal cause of action comprised of five elements. If you are involved in a fake profile situation and meet the following checklist, you may have a case for fraudulent misrepresentation:
A false statement of material fact (a material fact being one which is “crucial” to an issue or event. See Black’s Law Dictionary);
Known or believed to be false by the party making it;
Intent to induce the plaintiff to act;
Action by the plaintiff in justifiable reliance on the truth of the statement; and
Damage to the plaintiff resulting from such reliance.
Board of Education of City of Chicago v. A, C & S, Inc., 131 Ill.2d 428, 452, 137 Ill.Dec. 635, 546 N.E.2d 580 (1989).
HOW CAN I PROTECT MYSELF?
In sum, there are various legal ramifications for creating a fake online profile. Before investing in someone that you have only “met” online, there are a few things you can do to protect yourself:
1) Ask detailed questions (Where do you live? When did you move there? Where did you go to High School? Etc…)
2) Do some research. With Google at our fingertips, it is extremely easy to find out at least some basic information about the person you are talking to.
3) Meet the individual in person. If the person refuses to meet, that should be a red flag that something fishy is going on and ties should probably be cut.