Not surprisingly, Kirat Assi wants catfishing to be a criminal offense.
The radio host fell victim to the most extraordinary scandal – that involved nearly ten years and 50 fake online personalities.
Acting mercilessly, someone dragged her into a network of lies that Kirat believed, leaving her without work, unfriendly and on the brink of insanity.
At the center of the scandal was Bobby, a beautiful cardiologist who eventually became Kirath’s romantic partner, whom he had never met in real life.
Although Bobby is a real man, his online identity has been stolen by a fraudster, a woman named Kiran’s younger cousin, Simran Bhogal.
Kirath, 42, collapsed when she learned of this. “I don’t understand,” she told me. “I kept screaming at her, ‘Why, why did you do that? Ten years of my life. You stole ten years of my life. Why didn’t you stop? How do you get sick?’
Catfishing is a term used to describe attracting someone to a relationship by creating fake social media profiles. Many people think this is a joke or that it doesn’t happen to them.
As a host of the hit turtle media podcast Sweet Bobby, which has been downloaded more than three million times and tells the story of Kirat’s fraud and justice search, I have a different perspective.
I spent months talking with lawyers, former police officers and psychologists along with Kirat. Experience has convinced me that catfish can and do cause real and significant psychological damage.
I first saw Kirath’s story last June. A good source handed me a witness statement at lunch that says he has the details of the “craziest case” he has ever seen. When I read the 140-page document that night, I realized that he was right.
In 15 years of journalism, I have never seen anything like it.
The statement outlined every step of the catfishing campaign – the first time Simran had come to his home in June 2018, when he was first contacted on Facebook by Londoners from 2009, who called him “JJ”.
Some of the details were, frankly, surreal. At one point, Bobby died and then came to life, claiming that he was in a witness protection program that had been shot in Kenya. He developed life-threatening ailments, which meant he was stuck in a hospital in New York for a long time.
For years, marketing specialist Kirat and Bobby were just online friends. Kirat was in her thirties, good work and her life was ahead of her.
Bobby was just young, crazy, but part of it. But they eventually got closer and started an online relationship in 2015 – Kirat in London and Bobby in New York.
Bobby became the master of excuses. He promised Kirat to come to London to be with her. But there was always something last minute – usually a medical emergency.
Master of excuses
He told Kirat that he could not make video calls because his phone was broken or that witness protection rules did not allow it.
Many people have asked me – and Kirat – why she has endured all this. How can she relate to a person she has never met? Why didn’t she insist on a video call? How did Simran convince her that she was talking to a man?
Kirat does not hesitate to answer these questions. In fact, we devoted the entire podcast episode to hearing her answers. But for me, three things stand out.
The first is the sophistication of the scam. As novelists, Simran’s characters interacted with Kirat. They had their own lives; Their own personalities. Sometimes the complete deception takes my breath away.
On one occasion, Bobby asked Kirat to help his baby son choose some clothes. They went online and picked up some clothes together.
A couple of weeks later, the real son of Kirat Bobby saw pictures of the pair wearing their chosen outfits together.
How could that happen if Bobby wasn’t real? Catfisher did all the reverse engineering, though.
Simran, it seems, somehow managed to gain access to photos of Bobby’s real son. Perhaps through googling, she worked out where the clothes he wore came from. And then she tricked Keirath into thinking she had chosen the clothes.
Another big reason for believing the Kirat scandal is that Simran said she met Bobby face-to-face in New York while on a business trip.
You can see why that meeting seemed all the more believable, as Kirath completely trusted his cousin. Finally, it is important to understand that in the years following the fraud – when Bobby and Kirat became partners – Bobby was incredibly controlling.
He was jealous and angry. He observed Kirat’s movements and told her what friends she could and should not see. He was angry if she saw a male doctor or if she used “provocative” emoji on Facebook.
When they argue, they often have a “heart attack” or another medical emergency with kirat at the other end of the line.
Bobby – fake or not – is incredibly manipulative.
Dr Charlotte Proudman, a lawyer who specializes in gender-based violence, told me that Bobby is very controlling – or more accurately, Simran – in violation of criminal law.
Since 2015, “forced and controlling” relationships have been illegal. According to Dr Proudman, police should have investigated Simran for the crime. It does not matter that Bobby is not real, the case seems to fall “squarely” into legislation, he said.
But as I was about to find out, the police took a more narrow view. After Simran’s confession in 2018, Kirath tried for months to persuade her to investigate, saying that what happened to her this year was not a crime.
To me, the police response is probably the most frustrating aspect of this whole story. I have seen documents indicating that Hounslow police have never considered whether Simran violated the law governing coercion and relationships.
As far as I know, he has never questioned Simran himself. This means that even after the confession – when Kirat was trying to pick up the pieces of her life – Simran was able to go with her, go on vacation and enjoy the promotion at work.
Since Sweet Bobby came out last October, more than two dozen catfishing victims have been linked to similar stories about how he or Kirath betrayed him.
The actress, who has more than seven million Instagram followers, lost her close friend’s wedding due to Catfisher.
Like online fraud, I now believe that catfishing can happen to intelligent people who think they should be careful. Kirat’s case has made me more sympathetic to the victims of such scams – and convinced me that more needs to be done to protect them.
And Kirat agrees. “The police should be educated,” he says. “We need to allow victims to speak without fear of judgment and retaliation.”
He believes the police should receive more training that the existing laws apply to catfishing cases. Even if catfish is not an independent criminal offense, criminals may be violating laws governing relationships, stalking, and harassment.
And if that doesn’t work, like Dr. Proudman, she tends to outlaw catfishing altogether. “While this is not a complete solution,” says Kirath, “it acts as a deterrent.”
Kirat, who won a settlement in a civil case against Simran for harassment, misuse of private information and data protection, continues to question the police’s decision not to pursue her case.
There is the possibility of reopening the case, albeit small. I’ll post any developments on my Twitter page, @aleximostous.
The stubborn silence
As for Simran, he is stubbornly silent. The only communication I had from her was through her lawyer, who told me that it was a “family dispute over the events that started a decade ago.”
Her statement continued: “For me, this is a private family matter that has been resolved.
Simran’s refusal to speak is upsetting. I’m sure she has her own story. I still don’t understand what prompted her to completely cheat on her cousin and friend – an A * student and a headgirl who went to work at two of the country’s largest financial institutions.
Or, how she did it. Does she have a burner phones drawer? Or a map of all her many characters?
I still want to hear the story of Simran. This is the missing piece of the puzzle. And if people know a little more about her motivation it can make her more sympathetic.
Until then, I hope Kirat’s story will raise awareness of catfishing – and its potential to do serious harm.
Whether the law requires a change – or more rigorous training for police and Internet providers – victims need more protection. They deserve it.
- Sweet Bobby, a six-part podcast from Tortoise Media, is available on Apple and Spotify. Alexei Mostrus Turtle is the head of investigation in the media.