14th December 2017
Ann Coffey has called for a star rated league table to show how safe dating and social media websites are to use and how many complaints they receive.
She said this was urgently needed as the number of people being deceived online has soared.
Ms Coffey is campaigning for a new law to make it illegal to create a false identity online and pretend to be someone else to form a romantic relationship – known as ‘catfishing’.
She first became interested in catfishing after being approached by a constituent, Matthew Peacock, a Stockport male model, who had his identity stolen online for four years by a catfish who used his pictures on dating websites to lure women.
In a detailed submission, to the Government’s consultation on the Internet Safety Strategy, Ms Coffey called for catfishing to be outlawed and also for all dating and social media websites to be forced to introduce more robust ways of checking the identity of people using their sites including scanning passports, driving licences and using photo recognition software to protect people from being deceived.
She said a voluntary code of practice proposed by the government did not go far enough and that there needed to be a statutory Digital Mediation/Monitoring Complaints Board, which could enforce proper standards and take action.
This board would produce a league table of dating websites exposing the number of complaints it receives against each one.
Online dating in Britain is a big phenomenon with one in three under 40 year olds saying they have used an internet dating service or app at some point, according to a YouGov poll in 2016.
More than half of online dating users say they have come across a fake profile, according to figures quoted in the Government’s Internet Safety Strategy green paper. Seven reports of dating fraud are received by the UK’s Action Fraud every day – an increase of 32% over a two year period to December 2015.
After publicising Matthew Peacock’s case in Parliament, Ms Coffey was approached by several other victims who had all been traumatised by the experience.
They all told her that they wanted websites to do more to protect people by responding more quickly to complaints and introducing better ID verification procedures.
They also wanted catfishing to be made illegal to deter the persistent catfish who keeps reinventing him or herself in a different guise.
In her submission, Ms Coffey also suggested that websites who do not use verification processes or who allow anonymity should not be allowed to upload photographs because that makes it easier for cat fish to create a false profile.
And she urged the internet companies to be more transparent about what they spend on keeping users safe.
She said that the amount of money spent by the big internet companies on using developing technology to disrupt abusive relationships online was believed to be ‘minimal’ but was shrouded in secrecy and was not in the public domain.
Ms Coffey said:
“A league table of how safe websites are and how likely you are to be duped would expose in bright lights those who are not doing enough to protect their users.
“Websites have to take more responsibility and put their money where their mouth is and develop more robust ways of checking the identity of people who use their sites.
“A new monitoring board to enforce standards would force them to clean up their act and would be far more effective than a voluntary code of conduct.”
“At the same time the Government should create a new offence of catfishing which would have the very desirable effect of making people less likely to falsely use someone else’s identity online and enable the prosecution of persistent catfish.
“Making catfishing illegal would be a massive deterrent. If people knew pretending to be another person was an offence then they would be put off.”