Catfishing: A shocking court case has shed light on deceiving would-be partners online

Simon Usborne finds out why it happens
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The Independent Online

For a growing number of victims, the case of Gayle Newland has been tough to follow. A jury this week found the young woman from Cheshire guilty of sexual assault after she pretended to be a man called Kye Fortune while conducting a sexual relationship with an unnamed woman. Newland bound her own chest and used a dildo as part of a two-year romantic fraud, while her victim wore a blindfold, believing "Fortune's" explanation that he was too physically insecure to be seen.

The extent of the deception was extreme because it continued in real life, until the victim peered over the blindfold (Newland insisted that the woman had been a willing participant in extended role play). But its origins online, before the pair met in person, are far from rare. Students and victims of what is known as "catfishing" – when individuals use alter-egos to lure others into relationships – say that there is an urgent need for greater analysis and awareness of the effects of a complex form of abuse.

"I can't imagine the devastating, lasting effect this case will have had on the victim," says Claire Travers Smith. The television producer was targeted by a prolific hoaxer after meeting "Sebastian" on a dating website in 2011. "And while I think this is an exceptional example of catfishing and shows a significant amount of manipulation, it's an extreme example of what has become a frightening epidemic."

Yet such are the complexities and relative newness of catfishing, as well as a sense of shame that many victims feel, we have no idea how common it is. "In a lot of cases there is significant under-reporting, partly because people are embarrassed about what has happened, and we're still at a point where online crime is not given the same status," says Dr Emma Short, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Bedfordshire who specialises in online stalking and harassment.

Travers Smith, 35, publicised her story in 2013 after realising that Sebastian was a woman in her late 30s living with her parents in Pembrokeshire. Since then, she says she has received messages from at least 20 further victims of the same woman. "I have no doubt she will still be doing it now," she says. Yet, she adds: "Pretending to be someone else online isn't a crime. Unless you're physically harmed, threatened or defrauded of money, in the eyes of the law you're an adult who apparently should know better."

The term catfishing came from the 2011 documentary Catfish, about a New Yorker who was duped by a woman who posed online as a younger love interest. An MTV series of the same name followed. For many victims, the biggest question, after the shock of discovery, is simply: "Why?" In the case of the Catfish film, the woman who conned her would-be partner and was uncovered told ABC News: "I didn't have anything else in my life, it was just the only thing I had going for me."

Abusers become intoxicated by a thrill that grows with the web of their deception, sometime known as "duper's delight". Their lies can become so elaborate, Dr Short says, that they come to identify strongly with their fake personae "as another expression of themselves". She adds: "They can invest such a lot of time and emotional resources into their pursuit of other people that it is very hard to pull out, because what else is there?"

"These relationships are all-consuming for the victims, so they must be for the catfish too," says Travers Smith. "Some of the victims were involved for a couple of years, so there must have been genuine attachments formed, she must have, in some strange way, loved the victims, too." Skilled hoaxers investigate the personalities and interest of their victims online, and are capable of fooling anyone. "This was a highly manipulative, bright, articulate individual who had perfected the formula for the perfect man," Travers Smith adds.

Dr Short is talking to police this week as she and other professionals try to develop strategies for countering behaviours like these. In the meantime, Travers Smith sees fresh trauma ahead. "My worst nightmare is to one day get a letter telling me someone who fell in love with the same fictitious person I did had been so profoundly affected they saw no other option than to take their own life," she says. "God forbid that should ever happen, but I fear it's only that sort of drastic level that will get the lawmakers to sit up and pay attention." µ