Online predator victim: 'I was catfished for 12 years'
WHEN Susannah Birch was 15, she started talking to Richard Martin, who she thought was aged 17.
It was the beginning of a relationship that lasted for three years during which he convinced her to send him sexually explicit photos of herself.
She also regularly talked to him on the phone but said his accent made his age hard to identify.
It was only later that she found out he was a 50-year-old man who was impersonating a younger person for his own gratification, often called "catfishing".
They broke up in early 2005 but would remain friends for a further nine years until she found out in 2014 he had been lying about his identity for 12 years, fooling her with pictures of one of his sons.
Now she's warning people to be wary of others online so they don't fall into the same trap.
She started using the internet at nine-years-old and at 15 felt confident she wouldn't be scammed.
She said it was a lack of warning signs that lulled her into a false sense of security when she met him in a chat room.
"The main warning sign was that there was no warning signs," she said.
"People think online predators ask for money, or straight away ask you to strip on camera or meet, but he never asked me for money.
"Paedophiles groom people for months or years.
"By the time I was old enough to question him, I trusted him.
"The more I talked to him the less I thought he had an ulterior motive."
She said the man, who The Chronicle has not named as he is not facing criminal charges, had truthfully told her he was living in Mackay, but spun a web of lies to avoid meeting her.
"He kept making ups stories to stop me being suspicious," she said.
He was eventually caught in 2014 when she engaged a United States-based company that specialises in tracking people.
A Current Affair ran an expose into her case last year and organised for her to confront him over the phone.
Ms Birch said finding out he was a trickster was a huge relief.
"All those things over the years had added up, I'm one of those people who have to question everything and it annoyed me. I could never get a straight answer from him."
Ms Birch is still dealing with the fallout from the relationship and sees a psychologist regularly, also dealing with a childhood incident involving her mother.
She said the relationship had a big impact on her teenage years.
She is now happily married and works as a journalist, marketer and runs a successful website for mothers.
She has published a blog which details her life and is hoping to publish an autobiography.
Ms Birch said she wanted to tell her story despite the possibility people might criticise her.
"I look at public opinion as very minor compared to what I've been through in my life.
"If something makes me feel ashamed, or humiliated, I need to talk about it because other people can't talk about it.
"They don't know it's normal. I feel like if I stand up they won't feel alone."
Despite her ordeal she's not against online dating.
"The internet is a huge part of people's lives, meeting people online is almost a rite of passage now.
"But with smart phones you can get on there and do terrible things like bully people and share inappropriate photos.
"With internet dating, I'm not saying don't do it, as that's a ridiculous expectation.
"My advice is to ask the right questions.
"If they're not willing to have Skype call or meet in a public place and keep dragging it out, there's a problem."
She said there were limited resources on the issue, and advised people to watch the American television series Catfish for real life examples.
Note: For government resources on online child grooming on social networks visit: http://www.aic.gov.au/media_library/publications/rpp/103/rpp103.pdf