Another reason to be scared of the internet
Words by Emily Clarkson, author of Can I Speak To Someone In Charge?
In 2010, aged 15, I was catfished. There wasn’t a name for what happened to me back then, before Neave and Max had shone a light on this particular dark area of the internet via their hit MTV Catfish documentary. No, back then this wasn’t an internet scam that happened to thousands of unsuspecting and naive people, this was simply a thing that happened to me. The worst thing that ever happened to me.
Facebook didn’t used to be like it is now. It wasn’t a place used by news outlets, it wasn’t governed by Buzzfeed articles and it wasn’t somewhere that parents hung out. It wasn’t even an app. It was a website that I accessed via my Blackberry, WiFi allowing, and it was known exclusively as ‘The Face Page’ to anyone over the age of 30. It wasn’t safe, but I didn’t know that then.
In 2010 I received a friend request from somebody called Eddie Speer. I didn’t know him but he told me that he knew me. He said he’d been to my school and that he was now in the army. He was older than me, he was good looking and he was giving me the attention that I desperately craved. If it was suspicious, I didn’t see it. The internet just wasn’t scary back then, not to someone who thought she knew it all. If this guy didn’t really know me, then why would he add me on Facebook? That didn’t make any sense at all. Surely, surely, this was legitimate. That’s what my subconscious must have told me anyway, because looking back I’m not sure I even stopped to question this.
Our friendship blossomed quickly. This guy was too good to be true. (If only I had known the depth of this thought at the time…). We ate in the same restaurants, had seen the same films, we even supported the same football team. What had started off as nothing more than the occasional ‘what’s the school like these days’ message was now a full blown obsession. My phone, which before this had always slightly bored me, not ringing nearly as much as I would have liked it to, was now something that I couldn’t be without. But then, just as quickly as our table tennis-esque messages had started, they stopped. Because Eddie got deployed to Iraq.
This broke me. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know a lot, but I knew this was not good. Iraq was not a good place to be. I told my mum about it. I suppose I was so consumed by my grief that I missed the look of horror on her face. I was so wrapped up at the prospect of six weeks with no contact, I also didn’t notice my parents sneaking around my back fearing, and then discovering, the worst.
Eddie Speer did not exist.
He had not attended my school.
He was not in the army.
He was not a real person.
They told me what they’d discovered and it crushed me. Honestly. Not only was I bereft, I was mortified. Humiliated. Totally humiliated. But it didn’t just end there. As it turns out, you don’t simply find out that the person you were talking to was not the person they said they were, delete them and move on. That’s not how it works. They know things now, and you don’t know how much they know, so you’re not safe. You also don’t know who else they are doing this to. What if there were other girls? Girls ready to get on the train to grieve the fact that Eddie Speer had been killed in action with the people close to him. An invitation that, had my parents not made this discovery, I definitely would have accepted.
The months that followed were a blur. There were police, there were private investigators, there was the government children’s protection organisation. I do not exaggerate when I tell you I pushed this part of my life so far from my memory that when the time came to write about it in my book I was physically unable to do it. It took hours of rehashing it all with my mum. Hours of pain to be honest.
In the end, to everybody’s surprise, we discovered that I was not catfished by a paedophile. Not even close, I was catfished by a university student. A 20 year old girl who wanted to be my friend. She had seen me once, hanging out with my dad on a street in the Isle of Man and thought my life looked nice. And just like that, this madness began.
Of every possible outcome, in a lot of ways, this was the worst for me. Because at 15, pride trumps safety every time, right? I was so embarrassed and so damaged by this. It took me a long time to even want to trust anyone again.
But it taught me so much too. Perhaps if I hadn’t been given this lesson I’d still be sure now that the internet was safe. That people are always who they say they are and that being friends with someone you don’t know on Facebook isn’t really a big deal. I know now that not a word of this is true.
The internet is not safe. It’s so wonderful in so many ways and it’s better than it was, but it is definitely not safe. And if there is someone that you suspect of anything, it is your responsibility to tell someone. A parent, a friend, the police. And not to be embarrassed or feel ashamed – it happens a lot. A scary amount.
Don’t do what I did and think for a minute that your pride is more important than your safety. I might have come out of this ordeal okay, but I was one of the lucky ones.
Can I Speak To Someone In Charge? by Emily Clarkson is out now, priced £12.99.