State News

Bipartisan bill would crack down on online ‘catfishing’

"Catfishing" would become a misdemeanor if the bill passes.

Image By: Maximilian Homstad

Creating a false identity online and using it to manipulate another person — a phenomenon commonly known as “catfishing” — is currently permitted under Wisconsin law. A bipartisan bill is looking to change that.

The bill would make it a misdemeanor to “catfish” someone in order to “frighten, intimidate, harm, threaten, abuse, harass, defraud, or obtain a benefit from” them.

“This is prevalent enough that in order to make the internet a safe place, we have to have protections like this in place,” state Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, one of the sponsors of the bill, told the Wisconsin State Journal.

Offenders who create an entirely new online identity or impersonate a real person without their consent could be punished if the bill becomes law. They would face a fine of up to $1,000, no more than 90 days in jail or both.

Satirical or parody accounts would not be punishable, according to the bill’s sponsors.

State Rep. Bob Kulp, R-Stratford, said the bill modernizes a law from 1996 which punishes offenders who use “computerized communication” to actively “frighten, intimidate, threaten, abuse or harass” others while hiding their identity.

“The world has changed a lot in the last 20 years,” Kulp told the State Journal. “Really, it’s cleaning up language. We’re all about that on either side of the aisle.”

“Catfishing” rose to common usage after a 2010 film called “Catfish” documented a real case of the phenomenon. Afterwards, the producers of the documentary created an MTV show of the same name which follows people who are involved in “catfishing” scams.

In the age of the internet, Bewley says addressing the problem in Wisconsin is necessary.

“You can create a fictitious identity and literally lure or bait someone to come in and contact you, and that is not [currently] a crime,” Bewley said. “[This] is an important piece of legislation.”

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