Catfish Season


by Amy Coleman, Staff Writer

For those that are not up to speed on the Facebook lingo, a “Catfish,” as first coined in the eponymous Independent Film, “is someone who pretends to be someone they’re not[,] using Facebook or other social media to create false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances.” The term was used to put similarity between an online impersonator and a catfish’s behavior. Shippers use catfish to keep other fish active.  In the same way, online impersonators keep you guessing. “Catfishing” is the act of impersonating someone online.

But, even if you do not know the proper terminology, I am quite certain you have heard about the Manti Te’o scam. If you haven’t it’s time to come out from underneath that rock.  Aside from any possible opinions on whether Manti Te’o knew he was in a relationship with a man or whether he made up the scam for publicity, one thing is clear: no one had Diane O’Meara’s permission to create a Twitter profile with her name and photographs.

[1]If you think a Heisman-hopeful Football player who got tricked into a relationship with a man is all this story entails, think about this:  What if someone used your information?  Even worse, what if someone set up an account in your name and spoke to your family? Your friends? Your co-workers? Your boss?  The possibilities are limitless with this kind of impersonation.  And, lawmakers are certainly catching on real fast.

Military scammers impersonate Medal of Honor recipient Staff Sergeant Sal Giunta Photo courtesy of
Military scammers impersonate Medal of Honor recipient Staff Sergeant Sal Giunta
Photo courtesy of

In his Time Magazine article, Victor Luckerson addresses just that: “Can You Go to Jail for Impersonating Someone Online?” Prospective legislation is not just aimed at the online relationships or impersonations, but also include measures against anti-bullying messages. This could prove very damaging for would-be impersonators.  Impersonations without malice could be prosecuted in the same way as those who attempt to harass or de-fraud.

Further, even if there is not a criminal statute in place that covers online impersonation, there are still private causes of action that may apply.  For example, Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, Fraud, Misrepresentation, and Negligence. But, all states that have created an applicable criminal offense have a private cause of action.

My Advice: Watch Out Catfish, it’s Fishing Season.


Rundown of State Legislation on the Topic


Crime Punishment
Arizona House Bill 2004-*NOT YET PASSED*[2] Class 5 Felony- Imprisonment up to 1.5 years[3]Class 1 Misdemeanor- Up to 6 months Imprisonment[4]
California “E-personation”/Criminal Impersonation[5][6] Misdemeanor- Imprisonment for up to 1 year, up to $1000 fine[7]
Hawaii Harassment by Online Impersonation[8] Misdemeanor-Imprisonment up to 1 year[9]
Louisiana Online Impersonation[10] Misdemeanor- 10 days- 6 months Imprisonment,[11] up to $1000 fine[12]
Mississippi Online Impersonation[13] Misdemeanor- 10 days-1 year Imprisonment, $250-$1000 Fine[14]
New York Criminal Impersonation in the 2d Degree[15] Class A Misdemeanor- Imprisonment for up to 1 year[16], up to $1000 fine[17]
Pennsylvania Criminal Online Impersonation*Referred to House Judiciary Committee*[18] Third Degree Misdemeanor- up to 90 [19]days Imprisonment, $250-$5000 Fine
Texas Online Impersonation[20] Felony in the third degree-  2-10 years Imprisonment, up to $10,000 fine[21]Class A Misdemeanor-Imprisonment for up to 1 year, up to $4000 fine[22]
Washington Electronic Impersonation[23] Civil Cause of Action[24]