The Crime of Catfishing in Texas

Someone catfishing via text.

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The internet allows us to present ourselves in our best light, and while this can be a fun distraction, there are certain instances when pushing the boundaries of reality online is illegal. While Texas doesn’t have a specific catfishing charge on the books, it has other laws in place that make the practice against the law.

If you are facing a charge related to catfishing – or any other criminal charge – don’t wait to discuss the matter with an experienced Killeen criminal defense attorney.

What Is Catfishing?

Catfishing refers to impersonating someone else online or pretending to be someone other than who you are, and it crosses over into illegal territory when the intent behind it is to harm, defraud, threaten, or intimidate someone else. Another name that’s often used is cyberstalking, and the bottom line is that the accused used the internet to mask their identity with ill intent.

Case in Point

In 2021, Channel 7 News reported that a Houston man stood accused of posing as Bruno Mars – the recording artist – on Instagram as a means of relieving his victim of $100,000. The man faced a third-degree money laundering charge in connection with his 2018 scheme to bilk a North Texas woman out of her money.

The woman shared that she created a profile on social media in an attempt to find companionship. In the process, she met the man in question, who was posing as Bruno Mars and who reached out to her in search of what he called a meaningful relationship. Documents indicate that the woman fell in love with the man using the falsified account.

From here, the man began asking for money in the form of a check for $10,000 that was made out to someone he called a friend of the band for tour expenses. Two days later, he sent another request for $90,000, which she also followed through with.

Texas Laws Attempt to Keep Up

As technology advances at an ever-faster rate, the law does what it can to keep up. In 2009, Texas accepted that the problem of online impersonation needed to be addressed, and in 2011, it expanded its laws to include banning the use of fake accounts on social media services for purposes of harassment or deception.

Online impersonation for the purposes of harming, defrauding, intimidating, or threatening someone else is now illegal across all online venues in the State of Texas.

The Federal Government’s Approach

The FBI identifies catfishing schemes that use romance as a lure as romance scams, and they define them this way – when a criminal adopts a fake online identity to gain a victim’s affection and trust. The scammer then uses the illusion of a romantic or close relationship to manipulate or steal from the victim.

Skilled Con Artists

The FBI goes so far as to say that those who engage in catfishing of this nature tend to be very skilled at what they do. They generally feign interest in establishing a relationship as swiftly as humanly possible, then move on to endearing themselves to their victims and gaining their complete trust.

They often move forward by making elaborate plans to meet in person and may even propose marriage – neither of which will ever happen. Ultimately, they get around to asking for money – or digging for personal information that they can use to gain access to the victim’s money.

Common Ploys

A common ploy that many scam artists use is saying that they work in building and construction, which regularly takes them out of the country. This gives them the leeway necessary to never be available for an in-person meetup. It also makes it more plausible when they inevitably go for the gusto and ask for money—such as in response to a medical emergency.

Avoiding Romance Scams

The FBI offers these tips for avoiding online romance scams:

  • Be careful about what you post online and about what you share with the public online. Scammers are skilled at gathering details about victims and using the information to their own advantage when they move in with their pretty words.

  • Carefully consider the person’s photos and profile information and do some digging of your own online. If their image, their name, or details about their life have been used elsewhere, it’s a dead giveaway that they’re not who they say they are.

  • Pump the brakes if the person seems too perfect or if they are trying to rush you off social media or a dating app in order to communicate with you directly.

  • Don’t rush the relationship, and ask plenty of questions as you move forward. Your curiosity may be just what you need to scare them off.

  • If the person asks for sexually explicit photos, it’s important to remember that they could attempt to blackmail you with them later on. Another red flag is any attempt to isolate you from your loved ones – who, in their eyes, could snap you back to your senses.

  • If the person is desperate to meet you but comes up with excuse after excuse at the last minute, the writing is on the wall.

The federal government wants you to know that if someone you’ve met online asks for your bank information, they are almost certainly engaging in fraud. Sending money to someone you’ve never met in real life is always a terrible idea.

Additional Points to Keep in Mind

When it comes to steering clear of those engaged in catfishing schemes, some additional pointers include:

  • Be wary of social media accounts that have few – or no – photos of the account holder. They are far more likely to be set up for the sole purpose of scamming.

  • Pay attention to strange or inappropriate comments. If something feels off, erring on the side of caution is encouraged.

  • Ask to take a peek at another online account that belongs to the person. This can give you a better sense of who they really are.

  • Insist on meeting for a cup of coffee or for a drink before taking things any further. Never meet someone at their home for the first time.

  • If they have to change their story to keep up with your questions, it’s time to move on.

  • Trust your instincts. If you have a weird feeling, pay attention to it.

  • Anyone who falls in love with you in an online instant or who declares that you’re perfect without meeting you is boldly waving a red flag.

If the person on the other end of your online conversation leaves you feeling pushed and pulled emotionally – or otherwise manipulated – remember that you deserve a whole lot better and shut things down.

Examples of Online Impersonation in Texas

Some common examples of online impersonation in Texas include:

  • Offering to sell property that belongs to someone else, such as their vehicle, on an online platform and providing their contact information – without their permission

  • Making a fake social media account for an ex and posting personal or identifying information about them without their permission

  • Creating a fake website for someone else’s business and posting damaging or sensitive content about the owner on it

  • Messaging people through fake accounts that make them believe you’re someone other than who you are – with the intent of causing harm

The Charges Faced

The charge you face for catfishing or online impersonation will depend upon the severity of the offense, and it’s important to keep in mind that, for the act to be against the law, you must have intended to cause another person some form of harm, which can include intimidation, threats, or fraud. Consider the following two primary examples:

  • If you send someone else’s private and personal information electronically, such as through an email or chat, without their permission to do so, it’s a Class A misdemeanor, which carries up to 12 months in jail and fines of up to $4,000.

  • If you create a fake profile or chat with someone else online using a fake identity, it’s more serious still, and you can face a third-degree felony charge. A conviction carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years and fines of up to $10,000.

If the charge includes bilking the other person out of money, fraud charges can be tacked on, and they increase in severity as the amount of money involved increases.

It’s also important to note that soliciting a minor who is under the age of 17 via electronic means for purposes of engaging in sexual activity is another form of computer crime, and it’s charged as a third-degree felony.

If, however, the minor is under the age of 14, the charge is elevated to a second-degree felony, which carries a prison sentence of from 2 to 20 years along with fines of up to $10,000.

If You Weren’t Pretending to Be a Real Person

While the charge of online impersonation specifically states using the name or persona of another person, even one photo of someone who isn’t you can do the trick. The person in the photo is someone, and the photo can be interpreted as their persona.

Most online scams don’t get very far without at least a photo, and a photo of someone else can quickly veer into online impersonation territory. Consulting with an experienced criminal defense attorney sooner rather than later is the best path forward.

If You Had No Intent to Cause Harm

If the fake profile you made was only in jest and you had no intention of causing anyone else harm, it doesn’t reach the State of Texas’s requirement regarding intent. The burden of proving you intended to intimidate, or otherwise cause harm lies with the prosecution.

Bringing your strongest defense is well advised, and for that, you need a practiced criminal defense attorney in your corner.

FAQ

If you’re facing a catfishing charge – or a charge related to online impersonation – in Texas, the answers to some of the questions asked most frequently by others in your situation may help.

Is there a specific catfishing law in Texas?

No, Texas doesn’t have a specific law that makes it illegal to engage in catfishing, which is the term usually used for romantic scams. However, there is a law against online impersonation, and catfishing generally involves representing oneself as another person for purposes of financial fraud or some other illegal intent. As such, catfishing is generally illegal in Texas.

Is catfishing a misdemeanor or a felony?

Whether the charge is a misdemeanor or a felony depends upon the severity of the crime. For example, if you electronically send personal information about someone else without their permission, it’s a Class A misdemeanor, but if you adopt someone else’s identity to engage in online communications with nefarious intent, it’s a third-degree felony.

It’s important to note that misdemeanors are still serious crimes that can lead to serious consequences in your future.

What if I was just fooling around?

If you had no intention of causing anyone harm when you impersonated someone else online, you can build your defense on this fact. The state has the burden of proving that you had intent, but having focused legal representation on your side is always to your advantage.

It’s Time to Consult with an Experienced Killeen Criminal Defense Attorney

Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard is a formidable criminal defense attorney who is well-versed in effective defense strategies for charges related to catfishing in the State of Texas.

Your future is far too important to leave to chance, so please don’t put off contacting or calling us at 254-781-4222 to schedule your free consultation and learn more about what we can do to help you today.

Related Reading

Texas: The 5 Brands of Internet Sex Crimes

Sexting and Legal Charges in Texas

In Texas, There Is a Long List of Fraud Charges


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