When Fake Online Profiles Ruin Lives

What can be done when you're a victim of catfishing in California?

By Benjy Schirm, J.D. | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on April 4, 2023

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As the digital world explodes, people continue to derive a great deal of pleasure from the internet, and spend a large portion of their leisure time on it.

Unfortunately, there are those that have begun to impersonate others online in order to foster relationships. Catfishing, as it’s been called, has become a real problem for many unwitting victims—leading to heartbreak, monetary loss and sometimes even suicide.

With the proliferation of online dating and social networking, many people are escaping their daily lives by becoming someone else, by creating fake social media accounts, on the internet. This phenomenon, phishing, has affected those from all walks of life—from professional athletes and celebrities to average members of society.

What Is the Law?

Catfishing is the act of creating a fake online profile and seeking out other people online. The resulting relationships vary, but can turn into a method to defraud people of their money or assets.

Catfishers and fraudsters may harm, intimidate, or threaten people as well. When the harm or fear becomes involved, Catfishing, online impersonation, is illegal under California law.

Using someone’s likeness to create a fake profile is not the issue addressed by the state of California. The law concerns the use of said profile to take money or assets from people or using a connection to scare, worry, or threaten someone into doing something or preventing them from doing something.

These are considered tangible harms in the law. The penalties can be up to $1,000 in fines, added civil damages (for fraud, false impersonation, identity theft or a myriad of civil actions), and up to a year in jail.

How Does This Happen?

Often, catfishing begins from a place of loneliness or social anxiety. Catfishers and scammers take someone’s likeness as a way to connect with victims, and soon the scam becomes too big.

Catfishing has shown some positive benefits, as well. Three Chechen women convinced ISIS members that they were jihadi brides and conned them into sending them $3,300—funds that may otherwise have been used for terrorism. Law enforcement has very publically used hackers that used the technique to catch predatory child molesters and pornographers. Some catfishers use fake accounts to target hate groups, like the Ku Klux Klan, to confound their efforts to recruit, and activist groups like The Yes Men use catfishing methods to bring awareness to social issues.

Unfortunately not all cybercrime is equal, and sometimes it’s the innocent who are most effected. The real issue with these fake, profile-oriented romances is the people whose likenesses are stolen. Their identities are used by strangers, causing some very real harm.

What Can Be Done?

If someone has stolen your likeness, or if you have become a victim of a catfishing scheme on the internet, there is recourse in the state of California.

Contact local law enforcement, and a reputable personal injury attorney that can identify legal issues and bring you justice through a civil or criminal lawsuit. Perhaps most importantly, this will make you safe and give you peace of mind.

For more information on this area of law, see our overview of personal injury.

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