A model and influencer from Aberystwyth has described how individuals have been using her photos to create fake accounts pretending to be her in order to con others out of money. It is a process known as 'catfishing'.
Jess Davies started glamour modelling when she was 18. She said: "Pretty much straight away, I had people contact me on social media, saying that they have been speaking to who they thought was me, or someone using my images on dating profiles on social media sites. And that was nearly a decade ago. And then, up until now, I've had hundreds, possibly thousands of people contact me about fake accounts."
What is 'catfishing'?
AgeUK describes 'catfishing' as when someone sets up a fake online profile to trick people who are looking for love, usually to get money out of them. The person who pretends to be someone else is known as a 'catfish'. The charity offers advice on how to spot a catfish on its website.
In a new documentary, Jess meets a man called Walter who lives in Arizona. Walter had been speaking to someone using her images, initially on Snapchat.
"He'd been speaking to them for roughly four weeks a month, and it was everyday - relentless. And he was saying he was getting feelings for this person. And then one day, he was thinking, 'is this a bit too good to be true?' He did a Google Image reverse search, and then found my real Instagram profile and found out that it was a fake profile.
"I'd never spoken to anyone kind of face to face before who has actually been catfished by someone using my picture. So it was a really strange experience, but also humbling, because I think a lot of people think, 'how can these people be so naive to believe it?' but speaking with Walter, it was clear to see that he's just a genuinely nice guy who sees the best in people and doesn't just expect to be scammed online."
Especially in lockdown, a lot of people are using online profiles to try and find love.
"Speaking to Walter, I actually cried on camera when we were filming. But that didn't get into documentary just because I know what it's like to be out there and put yourself out there trying to find someone. And I haven't found my forever someone yet. So to see Walter put himself out there, I just felt like it's so sad that there's people out there just happily wanting to scam people out of money. When these people are just looking for love. I think when you break it down like that, it's like how heartless do you have to be to listen to these people tell you how they want kids and to get married, and then just ask them for money."
Action Fraud saw an increase in romance scam reports in 2020, with total reported losses equating to more than £68 million.
According to North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Arfon Jones, nearly 40 victims were conned out of an average of £30,000 each by fraudsters.
During the nine month period from April to December 2020, there were 39 vulnerable victims of romance fraud reported to North Wales Police.
Between them they lost a total of £1,180,196 which equated to an average loss of £30,261.
As well as people pretending to be her online, Jess discovered that nude photos she had taken were being sold and shared online in a growing underground movement.
In 2015, a law was brought in to criminalise 'revenge porn' - disclosing private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress. But this does not protect Jess.
"With these catfishes, their intent isn't really to harm me personally, they just want to make money. So I think it definitely needs looked at on a much wider scale."
With a lot of these underground forums where packs of my images are being traded, they don't care about copyright laws so unless they agreed to take it down, what can you even do?
"I think if we saw this happening in a market stall, and we're seeing women being traded and sold and talked about like this, quite rightly so everyone would be disgusted. But because it's happening online, for some reason, there's this disconnect that this is actually a human being in these images."
Jess said a lot of people are of the opinion that she should not have uploaded personal pictures of herself or taken them in the first place. But she said this is a "really dangerous retort to start going down".
"It's one step away from 'you shouldn't have been wearing that. Why did you walk home on your own? Why did you drink so much?' Again, it puts all the blame on the woman in the picture who is consensually allowed to take a picture and upload a picture of her body, where she's given permission. It is very different than to actually think, 'oh, well, now this is blanket consent to trade it and sell it and steal it and post it anywhere I want'.
"When it comes to the internet, we have an understanding of films, music, podcasts, you know, art history, illustrations that we don't have consent, or we don't have the copyright to share them images. So why is it when we look at women's photos, all of a sudden, that goes out the window?"
Jess Davies' documentary When Nudes Are Stolen is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.