A woman who was duped for a decade by a female cousin posing as a man has told how she wants catfishing to be made a criminal offence.
Kirat Assi, 42, of west London, spent 10 years believing she was communicating online with a doctor named Bobby, when in reality the profile – and those of some 50 others in the fake doctor’s network – was being managed by her female cousin, Simran Bhogal.
Kirat spent some of those years in a romantic relationship with the fake Bobby – who she believed was living in Australia and whose identity was based on the profile and photographs of a real man – that eventually led her to be signed off sick from work.
The deception was only uncovered when Kirat hired a private detective who uncovered the bizarre and chilling truth.
Kirat Assi, 42, from west London, discovered that she had been the victim of a decade-long ‘catfishing’ deception in 2018. She wants catfishing to be made a crime
Kirat, who featured in the hugely popular six-part Sweet Bobby podcast hosted by Alexi Mostrous, told the Sunday Times that she wants catfishing to be taken more seriously as a deterrent to online fraudsters.
‘I think it might serve as a deterrent for a lot of people to know that if you’re caught then immediately it’s a crime, just like driving with a mobile in your hand’, she said.
‘I call it online entrapment. I wasn’t on a dating site, I’m private online. The connotations associated with the term catfishing are that it’s fun.
‘This impacted my health, my family, friends, social life, my radio work, my career, absolutely everything.’
Kirat’s full story has been told in an astonishing series of podcasts produced by Tortoise Media, which saw investigators work over months with witnesses, legal experts and the real-life Bobby.
They believe it is the longest-running and most complex case of catfishing to have come to light because the deception involved creating not just one person, but an entire community.
In 2009, Kirat, a prominent member of London’s Sikh community, was working as an arts and events assistant for Hounslow Community Services and presenting a show on Radio Desi, a station for the Punjabi community.
Eventually she discovered it was not Bobby communicating with her, but her cousin, Simran Bhogal (far right), who had created a 50-strong cast of fake online personas to dupe her
She was in a relationship when, out of the blue, she received a Facebook message seemingly from Simran’s ex-boyfriend, JJ, asking for guidance on how to get her back.
The pair struck up a friendship and communicated over the next five months before she heard news that JJ had died, and Simran passed on the email address of his brother ‘Bobby’ to send her condolences.
The fake profile used the real Bobby’s photos and some biographical details without his consent, and in November 2010, Kirat had her first encounter with the fake Facebook profile.
The pair started off developing a friendship and he told her he was married, with a child on the way, however soon began divulging details of his collapsing relationship.
‘We weren’t close, but I saw him as a friend, a little brother,’ she told the Daily Mail.
In November 2013, she was at work when she received a Facebook message saying Bobby had been shot and was in a coma, suffering memory loss. And then in January 2014, she learned that he had died.
What is catfishing and is it illegal?
Catfishing is the phenomenon of luring someone into a relationship by creating a fictional online persona.
The phrase gained popularity after the 2010 American documentary Catfish and subsequent TV show.
At present catfishing is not illegal however elements of the online activity could be covered by different parts of the law.
For example, someone who has duped another person out of money could be prosecuted for fraud.
Legal experts involved with the Tortoise investigation believe that existing laws covering ‘coercive and controlling’ relationships should be adequate to bring a prosecution in Kirat’s case (even though the coercive control was being exerted by a person who wasn’t real).
‘I was invited to join a Facebook group of his friends. There were 39 people in it. I have since learned that none of them was real.’
However soon after, Kirat received an email out of the blue informing her that Bobby was actually alive but faked his own death and was hiding in a witness protection programme.
‘Ridiculous,’ she acknowledges. ‘But at every step, these mad happenings were being backed up by other people.’
She was told ‘Bobby’ was drinking heavily and was suicidal. In 2015, she was informed he had suffer a brain tumour, followed by a stroke.
‘Bobby’ declared his love for Kirat some weeks before they actually ‘got together’ on Valentine’s Day 2015.
‘I was not expecting him to live. His consultant [yes there were also constant messages from his fake medical team, which Kirat accepted at face value] did not expect him to live beyond July.’
Her feelings about this ‘dying man’ were confused. ‘I am not a mushy sort of person. When he said ‘I love you’, I didn’t know what to make of it, but I did love him . . . as a friend, then.
‘I also thought ‘Where’s the harm?’ It’s not as if I was ever going to be in a physical relationship with this person. But he kept putting the idea in my head. And everyone else kept saying: ‘Oh, he’s so in love with you’.’
Over the coming years the pair formed a relationship, exchanging several messages daily and their relationship even turned sexual – though Kirat never sent nude images of herself.
By 2017 ‘Bobby’ was becoming controlling including an incident where he forced Kirat to pay for a private mammogram at a London hospital after she experienced chest pains – then flew into a rage when she told him the consultant had been male.
She was signed off her job sick, with stress and eventually was let go. ‘I tried to find another one, but Bobby did not want me to work.’
Kirat was desperate to meet Bobby in person, but every time an arrangement was made, something would happen – including once when he supposedly had a heart attack.
When Kirat pressed him too hard on details of his claims, or meeting up in person, he would threaten to commit suicide.
Following more and more outlandish claims from ‘Bobby’, Kirat finally discovered that she had been communicating with Bhogal after hiring a private detective.
She went to police, who said no criminal offence had taken place. She later brought a civil action against Bhogal which was settled out of court.
‘She has taken ten years of my life from me, years I will not get back,’ said Kirat. ‘In that time I could have met someone real, had a baby. I lost my friends, my job, my savings.
‘I opened up to him — her! — telling him things about my hopes, dreams, my childhood, that I’d never tell anyone. I feel violated.’