How Cyberspace Enables Fraud and Extortion: Catfishing

Love, Money and Extortion

The rapid expansion of social media has become an integral part in everyday life for the majority of the Australians. Social media norms have evolved from solely connecting with family and friends and have enabled individuals to foster new relationships through connecting with strangers on various of online platforms, including dating apps. While developing emotional relationships online with strangers who seemingly express similar interests is now easier than ever, these practices have also enabled an increasingly prevalent practice of catfishing.

The term ‘catfishing’ refers to the creation of a deceitful online persona, usually manifested through use of another individual’s images and/or name. Catfishing is often used as a mechanism to build emotional or romantic relationships to extort a victim for financial gain. Catfishes often use images that are deemed conventionally attractive to lure in their victims, they often create a positive dynamic through empowering the victim through positive compliments, which enables the victim to become prone to an emotional and deep connection. Catfishes also create fake traumatic events, such as a major illness, once an emotional connection is formed to play on one’s sympathy in the lead up to asking for money.

Crystal-Lee Lancaster was a twenty-six year old female when she pled guilty to ten counts of fraud, where she had extorted ten men within a seven year period for monetary gain exceeding the sum of $300,000.00. The court had found Lancaster to use images she had stolen from another woman’s Instagram profile to create a fake online dating profile. Lancaster used the dating profile to connect with men, where she would lie to them in relation to her career and health, creating a situation where she was able to ask these men for money saying she was hospitalised with diabetes, unable to work and needed to pay for medication and other expenses. Lancaster exemplifies how online relationships can be built on the basis of deception which enables a catfish to exploit the emotional connection the victim develops, for financial gain.

Nino Martinett found himself to be a victim of catfishing after he was exploited for $13,000.00, under the impression that the money was used to facilitate meetings with Olivia Newton-John. Martinett was seemingly targeted as he had produced work with the collaboration of Olivia and thus, found himself to be conversing with a catfish who claimed to be the famous singer after accepting a Facebook friend request. Martinett had formed an emotional relationship with the catfish as he began to feel sympathetic for her as she described herself as single and lonely. Furthermore, he was unaware of the lifestyle of Olivia had, leading him to be gullible to the financial requests of the catfish.

Martinett’s catfish was exposed to be linked to an international criminal network as a man from Nigeria, Fidelis Ilechie was found to be connected to the fake Facebook account. While Martinett has reported the case to the police, it highlights a potential issue regarding the jurisdiction of the crime. Due to Ilechie’s overseas status, he is not bound by Australian laws. Furthermore, fraud is commonly investigated at the local level, hindering the Police Force’s ability to prosecute overseas offenders due to resource limitations.

Overseas scams, such as the situation Martinett is found in, can seek recourse from SCAMwatch which is run through the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), while this organisation cannot assist directly in recovering money and tracking down the scammer, they are able to report to the relevant overseas government organisations for the purposes of law enforcement, therefore the catfish can only be held liable if the activity is illegal in their country of residence.

Is Catfishing Illegal?

Currently, the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) does not involve a specific offence of catfishing. However, when catfishing is used for the purpose of extorting an individual for financial gain, the offence may fall within the definition of fraud, under section 192E of the Act.

Section 192E

  • A person who, by any deception, dishonestly—
  • obtains property belonging to another, or
  • obtains any financial advantage or causes any financial disadvantage,

is guilty of the offence of fraud.

Maximum penalty—Imprisonment for 10 years.

The Act uses the terms ‘deception’ and ‘dishonestly’ to qualify obtaining property belong to another, a financial advantage, or causing a financial disadvantage, as a criminal offence. The term ‘deception’ is defined in Section 192B as ‘any deception, by words or other conduct, as to fact or as to law’. As catfishing is deceitful conduct that misrepresents one’s identity, it can be said to be deception by conduct as to fact. Thus, when catfishing is used for a financial gain, it is conduct that is captured by the offence of fraud.

Suspicious of being Catfished?

All social media and dating websites or applications have built in reporting mechanisms where users are encouraged to report individuals they suspect to not be portraying their true identity. Once a report is submitted, the relevant website or application will conduct their verification procedures. For information on how to submit a report, the eSafety Commissioner has a guide which can be accessed through the following link:


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