Big read: The woman who stole my identity

By Jasmine Emily

Jasmine Emily found herself unwittingly involved in a massive catfishing scam. Photo / News.com.au
Jasmine Emily found herself unwittingly involved in a massive catfishing scam. Photo / News.com.au

Normally I don't answer an unknown number - unrelenting telemarketers and even more ruthless publicists have left me jaded, and I rarely trust unfamiliar digits.

So I let the call ring out and go to voicemail as I shifted my car into park and pulled on the hand-break in the gym carpark. With one hand digging through my bag for a hair tie, I clicked on the red voicemail notification.

"Jasmine, you don't really know me," said an unfamiliar man's voice. "But someone claiming to be named Hannah added me on Facebook and asked to line up a photo shoot, but I recognised you in the photos and knew something was up. I'm a photographer in Melbourne, call me."

During the next hour, after instantly hitting the redial button, the photographer-turned-good-Samaritan told me about a suspicious Facebook profile for a person calling themselves Hannah.

The account appeared to have been active for years, he said, and was filled with photos of me and my friends.

A red flag went off after he recognised me from an article he read.

Armed with the photographer's Facebook details I was able to see "Hannah's" page (my own profile had been blocked from seeing her page), and a chill ran through my body.

Not only did this person seem to have access to all of my photos, from as recently to the previous day to as far back as my birthday party two years earlier, but she (or he) had used the bullet points from my life to design her own digital fantasy world. And it was disturbingly detailed.

Not only had I been impersonated, but dozens of my friends, family and - wait for it - even my pet Pomeranian had been given accounts under false names. Most were on private settings and seemed to be inactive, except for when commenting on "Hannah's" profile.

The account reimagined every one of my personal milestones and public Facebook conversations over the previous 24 months. My sister's birthday party photos appeared in an album that pretended to be her engagement party. A close friend's hen's night became an end of exams celebration, with all of my pals' faux accounts tagged in the pictures.

She even recreated a personal website I used to secure freelance work, claiming my credentials and experience, recreating my exact branding, and publishing it under her faux name. I'm talking about hours and hours of effort put into turning my real life into someone's Facebook fantasy world.

Here are a handful of my friend's and family's accounts that were impersonated under slightly different names by 'Hannah'.
Here are a handful of my friend's and family's accounts that were impersonated under slightly different names by 'Hannah'.

Unsure what to do, I dialled the police, and was basically laughed off the phone. I was essentially told that if law enforcement became involved in every fib told on Facebook, half the population would be behind bars.

So, I took matters into my own hands and together with a friend was able to track down the location of the computer that manned the account after finding one of "Hannah's" status updates in which the user checked in at home. With a little Google search of the address, I found a phone number and dialled.

To my surprise, someone answered, and after an awkward couple of minutes, I realised I was speaking with a 23-year-old woman from the outskirts of Melbourne: "Hannah."

She was a regular uni student who lived at home with her parents, and caved the second I told her my name, spilling everything over the phone. Yes, she had added me years ago on Facebook under her real account - I, stupidly, had accepted her request based on a couple of mutual acquaintances.

No, we'd never met. Yes, she's spent years stalking my Facebook and greedily watching for snippets from my life that she could spin to suit the fantasy world she'd built under the pseudonym "Hannah".

She had boyfriends, she told me, who she only interacted with online and via text message, but had never met. As far as these men were concerned, "Hannah" looked like me, worked as a writer, and shared almost every other detail of my day-to-day life.

Tearfully, she told me about her strict family and her desire to "get attention from men" with her pretend profile, and handed over the login details for each account.

I was able to read the months of conversations she held with real men from all across Australia who fell for her creative persona. Some, who were clearly more deeply involved, I spoke with before closing the account.

They told me about hours of late-night phone calls, last minute cancellations of dates, and deeply-involved romantic relationships behind LCD screens. Others wrote me cliche-ridden manifestos about their love for "Hannah". As far as these men were concerned, she'd been a very real part of their lives for the past two years.

And while you might think I'm just unlucky to be at the centre of this whole thing, I can assure you this is far more common than you think - anyone with MTV will be familiar with Catfish, the show dedicated to similar situations in which people deceive others with the intent to pursue an exclusively online romantic relationship.

And personally, since speaking out about what happened to me, several friends have come forward with their own experiences of men and women using fake information to strike up romances and relationships.

In the months after discovering the scam, "Hannah" has been on my mind a lot. Mostly, I want to understand why she did it.

So, I reached out to Kelly Campbell, a psychology professor at California State University whose research centres on the topic of catfishing. According to Dr Campbell, motivations range depending on the person and could be because of a "lack of love or abuse growing up which cultivates a narcissistic personality," or because the catfish is "trying to become their ideal self and test out an identity they don't occupy, like different genders or sexual orientation."

Sometimes, she says it's about revenge, or in other cases suspicious partners try to use false accounts to trap their spouses into cheating online.

Seeing as the person behind "Hannah" and I had never met, neither of these motivators seemed likely. Instead, Dr Campbell suggested that she may catfish because her "own life lacks excitement, is unfulfilling, and they are seeking excitement and novelty" or because she's "embarrassed of their true self" due to a disability, disease or obesity.

For some people, learning that their online boyfriend or girlfriend is a catfish isn't even necessarily a deal-breaker.

"Some people in my study were catfish perpetrators who got catfished and when they eventually met the person, they couldn't be mad because they had both done it too," explained Dr Campbell.

"Another participant was catfished by a person who didn't disclose their disability level, in this case the victim or person who was catfished was willing to overlook the lie because she understood why he had lied and felt empathetic."

I do hope one of "Hannah's" virtual relationships worked out after she came clean. Some time has passed since I discovered the scam, and to be honest, I'm not mad, but rather just relieved that "Hannah" is an insecure, 20 something-year-old woman, and not someone more sinister.

In saying that, I'm now much more careful about unfamiliar friend requests on Facebook - if we haven't hung out in real life, there's no way you're getting access to my virtual one.

- news.com.au

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