Assi, who lives in London, fell victim to a complex fraud that lasted eight years and involved up to 60 characters who only existed in the scammer’s warped imagination. At the centre was Bobby, a handsome cardiologist with whom Assi formed a close friendship that turned into romance despite never meeting in real life. Bobby was a real person whose identity had been stolen by the scammer, eventually exposed as Assi’s cousin Simran Bhogal.
As the newspapers acknowledged, this story was investigated and first reported by Alexi Mostrous of Tortoise Media in a six-part podcast called Sweet Bobby. I listened to the series over the holiday break and highly recommend it.
Like Serial, the US podcast that defined the genre in 2014, Sweet Bobby was reported in real time. Each episode was made after the previous one had been released and heard. In a traditional documentary series, most if not all of the interviews are recorded before the first episode goes out. But in this type of podcast, there is time for those directly involved to take decisions based on what they hear. Those decisions and their consequences — which may be highly significant — can then be reported in subsequent episodes.
Catfishing occurs when a person creates a fake profile on social media in order to deceive and abuse someone else, either for money or — as in this case — to manipulate and control a victim. The term “catfish” comes from a documentary released in 2010, though the etymology offered in the film is regarded as a myth.
Is catfishing a crime? The police have told Assi there is nothing they can do. She wants the law to be changed.
But is it possible to argue that the facts as alleged by Assi are covered by existing law? What about the crime of controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship?
Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015, in force from December of that year, says, in part:
(1) A person (A) commits an offence if—
(a) A repeatedly or continuously engages in behaviour towards another person (B) that is controlling or coercive,
(b) at the time of the behaviour, A and B are personally connected…
(2) A and B are “personally connected” if—
(a) A is in an intimate personal relationship with B, or
(b) A and B live together and—
(i) they are members of the same family, or
(ii) they have previously been in an intimate personal relationship with each other…
Assi did not live with Bhogal. So for a prosecution to succeed it would be necessary to establish that they were in an “intimate personal relationship”.
Two lawyers were interviewed by Mostrous for the podcast. I have been in touch with both of them.
Yair Cohen, a solicitor specialising in social media law, acted for Assi and won damages from Bhogal when she settled a civil claim. He told me:
The main issue here is that the police have been locked into a conceptual thinking that was limited to their previous experiences and knowledge of how things ought to be working in the offline world.
They were therefore unable to think more broadly about the offence and or the application of the facts to the modern world.
In my view, the police should reopen this investigation as there appear to be no particular difficulties in establishing all the elements of the offence.
Bhogal gave a statement through her lawyers to Tortoise Media last autumn. She said:
This matter concerns a family dispute over events that began over a decade ago, when I was a schoolgirl. As far as I am concerned, this is a private family matter that has been resolved and I strongly object to the numerous unfounded and seriously defamatory accusations that have been made about me as well as details of private matters that have been shared with the media.
Dr Charlotte Proudman is a barrister specialising in family law. Though not instructed in this case, she has given it a lot of thought.
How, I asked her, could it be established that Assi was in an intimate personal relationship with Bhogal? Proudman listed four factors in support of that argument:
They spoke all the time.
It was a loving, intimate relationship with plans for the future.
They discussed their sexual needs/life.
It lasted for a decade.
Of course, Assi thought that she was in an intimate relationship with a man called Bobby, not a woman called Bhogal.
But, says Proudman, Bobby was Bhogal. So Assi was, unwittingly, in an intimate relationship with her.
This is an intriguing argument. As Proudman says, it could be a ground-breaking case, testing the limitations and boundaries of section 76.
It’s certainly not clear-cut. I wonder whether the Crown Prosecution Service will give it a go.
If not, a change in the law is certainly something that parliament should consider.
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