No wonder Kirat Assi wants fishing to be made a criminal offence.
The radio presenter fell victim to the most extraordinary scam – a scam that spanned nearly ten years and involved 50 fake online characters.
Acting without pity, someone Kirat trusts draws her into a web of lies, leaving her jobless, friendless, and on the brink of insanity.
At the center of the scam is Bobby, a handsome cardiologist who eventually becomes Kirat’s romantic partner, even though they’ve never met in real life.
Bobby was a real person but his online identity was stolen by the scammer, who turned out to be Kirat’s cousin, a woman named Simran Bhogal.
When Kirat, 42, found out, she collapsed. “I can’t understand,” she told me. “I just kept shouting at her, ‘Why, why are you doing this? Ten years of my life. You stole ten years of my life. Why don’t you stop? How can you be so sick? ”
Catfishing is a term used to describe attracting someone into a relationship by creating fake social media profiles. Many people take it as a joke, or think it can’t happen to them.
As the host of Tortoise Media’s Sweet Bobby podcast, which has been downloaded more than three million times and tells the story of Kirat’s deception and search for justice, I have a very different perspective.
I spent many months talking with Kirat as well as with lawyers, former police officers and psychologists. That experience convinced me that catfis owners can and do cause real and significant psychological harm.
I first saw Kirat’s story last June. A good source gave me a witness statement over lunch, telling me it contained details of the “craziest case” he had ever seen. When I read the 140-page document that night, I realized he was right.
In more than 15 years of journalism, I have never seen anything like it.
The statement details each step of the fishing operation – from 2009 when Kirat, from London, was first contacted on Facebook by someone named “JJ”, up until June of this year. 2018 when Simran came to her house and confessed everything.
Honestly, some details are surreal. At one point, Bobby died and then came back to life, claiming he was participating in a shot witness protection program in Kenya. He developed life-threatening illnesses, which meant he was stuck for long periods of time in a New York hospital.
For years, marketing gurus Kirat and Bobby were just friends online. Kirat is over 30 years old, with a good job and life ahead.
Bobby is only a small, though crazy, part of it. But they eventually became closer and in 2015 they started an online relationship – with Kirat in London and Bobby in New York.
Bobby became a master of excuses. He promises Kirat that he will come to London to be with her. But something always happens at the last minute – usually a medical emergency.
MASTER OF EXCUSES
He also told Kirat that he couldn’t make video calls because his phone was broken or because witness protection rules didn’t allow it.
So many people have asked me – and Kirat – why she put up with all this. How can she be in a relationship with someone she’s never even met? Why didn’t she ask for a video call? How did Simran convince her that she was talking to a man?
Kirat did not shy away from answering these questions. In fact, we spent an entire podcast episode listening to her answer. However, for me, three things stand out.
The first is the sophistication of the scam. Like a novelist, Simran’s characters interact with each other as well as with Kirat. They had their own lives; their own personality. Sometimes the sheer crookedness makes me lose my soul.
On one occasion, Bobby asked Kirat to help him choose some clothes for his young son. They went online and picked up some clothes together.
A few weeks later, Kirat saw Bobby’s real son wearing the clothes the couple had chosen together.
How could that be if Bobby wasn’t real? However, catfisher has reverse engineered it all.
Simran, it seems, has somehow gained access to photos of Bobby’s real son. Presumably by Google, she then finds out where the clothes he’s wearing come from. And then tricked Kirat into thinking that she chose the clothes herself.
Another big reason Kirat believes the scam is real is because Simran told her she met Bobby in person in New York, while she was on a business trip.
Since Kirat trusts his cousin completely, you can begin to understand why that encounter makes everything else more believable. Ultimately, it’s important to understand that in the later years of the deception – when Bobby and Kirat became partners – Bobby became surprisingly controlling.
He is jealous and angry. He tracks Kirat’s movements and tells her which friends she can and cannot meet. He becomes angry if she sees a male doctor or if she uses the “provocative” emoji on Facebook.
When they argued, he often had a “heart attack” or another medical emergency with Kirat on the other end of the line.
Bobby – fake or not – is extremely charismatic.
Dr. Charlotte Proudman, an attorney specializing in gender-based violence, told me that Bobby was so controlling that he – or more accurately Simran – could have broken criminal law.
As of 2015, “coercion and control” relationships are illegal. According to Dr. Proudman, the police should have investigated Simran for this offence. She said it didn’t matter that Bobby wasn’t real, adding that the case seemed to fall within the scope of the law.
But when I found out, the police had a much narrower view. After Simran’s confession in 2018, Kirat spent months trying to convince them to investigate, only to be told that what had happened to her was not a crime this year.
For me, the police response was perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this whole story. I have seen documents showing that Hounslow Police never looked into whether Simran broke any laws regarding relationships of coercion and control.
To my knowledge, they never questioned Simran. This means that even after the confession – when Kirat was trying to pick up the pieces of her life – Simran was still able to move on with her, go on vacation and even get a promotion at work.
Since Sweet Bobby debuted last October, more than two dozen victims of the catfish catch have contacted me or Kirat with similar stories about how they were duped.
They include an actress with over seven million Instagram followers who missed her best friend’s wedding because of a catfish.
Like online cheating, I now believe that catching fish can happen even to smart people who think they are careful. Kirat’s case made me feel more sympathetic to the victims of such scams – and convinced me that more needed to be done to protect them.
And Kirat agreed. “Police need to be educated,” she said. “We need to allow victims to speak up without fear of judgment and retaliation.”
She also believes that police should receive more training on current laws that may apply to fishing cases. While catching fish is not an independent offence, perpetrators can still break the law by outlawing when it comes to controlling relationships, stalking, and harassment.
And if that doesn’t work, then, like Dr. Proudman, she’s in favor of punitive outlaws. “Although it may not be a comprehensive solution,” Kirat said, “It will act as a deterrent.”
After winning settlement in a civil lawsuit against Simran for harassment, misuse of personal information and data protection violations, Kirat is continuing to challenge the police’s decision not to pursue the case.
There is a chance, however small, that the case could be reopened. I’ll be posting everything on my Twitter page, @aleximostrous.
As for Simran, she stubbornly remained silent. The only communication I ever had from her was through her attorney, who told me it was “a family dispute over events that began more than a decade ago.”
Her statement continued: “As far as I know, this is a private family matter that has been resolved. I strongly oppose the numerous baseless and serious defamation allegations that have been made about me, as well as the details of privacy matters that have been shared with the media. “
Simran’s refusal to speak was frustrating. I’m sure she has her own story. I still don’t understand what motivated her – an A* student and headmistress who went on to work at the country’s two largest financial institutions – to cheat on her cousin and friend totally like that.
Or, really, how she did it. Does she have a drawer full of phones? Or a map of all her characters?
I still want to hear Simran’s story. That’s the missing piece of the puzzle. And it might even make people more sympathetic to her, if they knew a little more about her motivations.
Until then, I hope that Kirat’s story will raise awareness about catfish fishing – and its potential for serious harm.
Whether the law needs to be changed – or just 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. Alexi Mostrous is the Head of Investigations at Tortoise Media.
https://www.the-sun.com/news/4427878/worlds-worst-catfish-fooled-victim-10-years/ I discovered the world’s ugliest catfish that a sinister web of lies has been deceiving its victims for 10 YEARS