Welcome to Sisters In Law, news.com.au’s weekly column solving all of your legal problems. This week, our resident lawyers and real-life sisters Alison and Jillian Barrett from Maurice Blackburn tackle your legal rights when it comes to catfishing and online deception.
QUESTION: I couldn’t believe my luck when I met an incredible woman online. She contacted me on Tinder, but we quickly took things off-platform, texting until the early hours every night. She was easily the most beautiful woman who has ever spoken to me — I’m not the most popular man when it comes to the ladies. I couldn’t believe the connection I felt to her, even though we’d never actually spoken before (she told me the microphone on her phone was broken so we could only text, not speak). After months of chatting, she finally agreed to fly from Perth to Melbourne so we could meet in person, but on the day, everything went wrong — her car broke down and she missed her flight and had no money to buy a new one, so I sent her some cash, about $4000 in total. I waited at the airport but she never showed up and hasn’t answered any of my texts since. I am heartbroken and also so embarrassed. Was I catfished? Do I have any legal rights? — Paul, Melbourne
ANSWER: Catfishing is the term used to describe deception about someone’s identity online, usually with an ulterior motive.
As in your case, it’s often used in online dating to pursue someone romantically under false pretences or to bully someone on social media.
Catfishing itself is not a crime under the law, however it will be considered illegal in certain circumstances.
Every state and territory has laws making fraudulent behaviour a crime, with hefty financial penalties and jail time.
For catfishing to be classified as fraud under the law, it would need to be shown that:
• By deception, the “catfish” acted dishonestly;
• The conduct caused a financial advantage over the other person or caused them to suffer a disadvantage;
• The conduct was intentional or reckless.
Tracking down this woman’s real identity (assuming she was even a woman) can be very difficult, let alone proving the elements of fraud to allow criminal charges to be laid.
Unfortunately, you’re not the first person to fall for a catfishing scam, with celebrity Casey Donovan also being a victim.
Celebrities have also had their identities stolen in order to catfish unsuspecting victims.
Criminal charges can also be laid where the catfish uses fraud to procure or engage in sexual activity.
Other more serious charges may apply to people who prey on children online to cause them harm, engage or procure sexual activity. Dubbed “Carly’s Law”, these laws follow the campaigning of concerned mother Sonia Ryan whose 15-year-old daughter was murdered in 2007 by a man posing online as an 18-year-old musician.
In relation to the money that you provided her, if your intention was to loan her the money then you may be able to get this back from her.
To do so, you must send her a letter of demand (after you have identified who she is), setting out that she owes you $4000 and asking that it be repaid within a certain time frame, otherwise legal action will be taken.
If she doesn’t respond then each state and territory has different rules about how to recover money owed to you.
In Victoria, you’re able to begin proceedings in the Magistrate’s Court to recover debts up to $100,000. This is also the case in South Australia.
For those living in other states and territories, such as Queensland, or the ACT where the amount is less than $25,000 ($10,000 in the Northern Territory), then a claim can be lodged with the Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
To lodge a claim with the tribunal or court, you must prepare a claim document that has:
• The full name, and address, of the person or business who owes you money;
• Details of the debt, including the date and place it happened, the amount, the terms of the agreement (including when it was to be paid back and whether it was a written or verbal agreement);
• Any supporting documents, such as a copy of the agreement, and evidence showing the transfer of the money or goods (for example, bank statements);
• Details of the amount you are trying to recover, plus any additional costs or interest.
You must then serve the claim on the person who owes you money, and you may have to prove you provided her with the documents. The time frame for her to respond is 21 days in Victoria but between 21 and 30 days in other states and territories.
If your catfisher fails to respond, you can ask the court or tribunal to make a decision in your favour. You may otherwise be required to attend the court or tribunal and argue why you should be repaid.
If, ultimately, the debt is ordered to be repaid, then your catfisher may agree to repay the debt in instalments. If the debt is not repaid, then you may make a further application to the court or tribunal to:
• Seize and sell property — the property must be sold by public auction and for a reasonable price;
• Redirect debts — if your catfisher is owed money by someone else, this can instead be ordered to be given to you instead;
• Redirect earnings — your catfisher’s employer can be ordered to pay most of her wage to you leaving only necessary living expenses (social security payments cannot be redirected);
• Redirect other money — if she has money in a bank account or is due to receive money for rental income, then this can be paid;
• Petition for the bankruptcy of your catfisher.
If your catfisher does repay some of the debt, then always keep records and provide a receipt. Electronic transfers or a bank cheque are often a safer option rather than handing money over in a briefcase.
There are strict time limits to recover a debt, so you should not delay in taking action.
This legal information is general in nature and should not be regarded as specific legal advice or relied upon. Persons requiring particular legal advice should consult a solicitor.
If you have a legal question you would like Alison and Jillian to answer, please email firstname.lastname@example.org