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Gov. Mary Fallin's signature makes catfishing illegal in Oklahoma

Catfish someone in Oklahoma and you could find yourself on the hook.

Under a new law, anyone who uses another person's photos or video to carry out a so-called catfishing scam may be held liable for monetary damages.

The bill, which was House Bill 3024, passed both legislative houses by overwhelming margins. Gov. Mary Fallin signed the bill into law this week.

Catfishing is an online scam in which a person uses photos of someone else to set up fake social media accounts and then uses those accounts to lure others into an online relationship. The practice gained national attention in 2013, when Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o was the victim of such a scheme.

The Catfishing Liability Act of 2016 allows people whose photos or videos are stolen to request an automatic injunction against the person using them. It also allows those victims to request monetary damages, including punitive damages of no less than $500. The ban doesn't extend to "any online impersonation for which the sole purpose is satire or parody."

The law is designed to give legal recourse to the victims of such scams, said Rep. John Paul Jordan, the bill's author. Jordan, R-Yukon, said he's heard from a number of constituents, friends and even other lawmakers who have family members who either have had their photos used in catfishing scams or fallen victim to such schemes themselves.

“There's so many people that have actually been hit with this issue," he said.

Jordan said he hopes the law will offer guidance to courts in what had previously been a gray area in Oklahoma state statutes.

Although the bill appears to be the first of its kind in the United States, the idea is already beginning to take root elsewhere. Jordan said lawmakers from several states, including Texas, California and Pennsylvania, have contacted him asking for advice on writing anti-catfishing legislation in those states.

Jordan said he became aware of the issue after reading an article in The Oklahoman about Sara Peccia, a California woman who said an Oklahoma City woman used photos of her to lure men into online romantic relationships. In some cases, the men would track the photos to Peccia's actual social media profiles and come to California to try to meet her.

The situation went on for about 10 years, Peccia said. During that time, Peccia found her photos in a number of unsavory corners of the Internet, including a fetish site devoted to fantasies about being abducted. That left her in fear for her own safety, she said.

Last year, Peccia, of Sacramento, Calif., and Thad Robinson, one of the victims of the scam, confronted the Oklahoma City woman, Ashley Pietrowicz, on an episode of the MTV program "Catfish: The TV Show." In that episode, Pietrowicz promised to stop using Peccia's photos.

Shortly after the episode aired, Peccia found her photos posted on a number of fake online profiles that had been set up after Pietrowicz promised to stop using them. However, she said she hadn't seen any new profiles featuring her photos recently.

Peccia said she's pleased with the new law in Oklahoma. She'd like to see it expanded to other states and, eventually, to the federal level.

A federal law covering catfishing could provide a more practical solution to the problem, Peccia said. The nature of the Internet could make a patchwork of state laws difficult to enforce, she said.

Still, Peccia said Oklahoma's law represents a good first step.

“I think this is great that this is happening in Oklahoma," Peccia said. "I think other states probably ought to follow in it.”

Silas Allen

Silas Allen is a news reporter for The Oklahoman. He is a Missouri native and a 2008 graduate of the University of Missouri. Read more ›