Photoshopped images, pictures of celebrities including British actor Danny Mac and Australian DJ Havana Brown and messages of love were used to reel in victims of an elaborate online plot. (ABC News: Shane Willner-Browne)
A terrifying story of virtual deceit and inexplicable malice, perpetrated by the last person anyone expected.
It’s a conversation Lincoln Lewis will never forget.
In the winter of 2011, the former Home and Away star and son of Rugby League legend Wally Lewis picked up a call from a number he didn’t recognise.
“Hey Linc,” said the person on the other end of the line.
The voice was familiar and for good reason.
Lincoln went to primary school with Emma and she had dated one of his best friends a few years earlier. But he had not seen her in years, making her reason for calling all the more bizarre.
“Have you and I been dating for the past couple of months?” she asked.
“No,” Lincoln replied, dumbfounded.
“What are you talking about?”
Over a long phone call Emma grew increasingly distraught as she told Lincoln what had happened. It was an extraordinary story of an improbable online romance that was actually a cruel deception. An extreme example of what’s become known as ‘catfishing’ — the use of online aliases to lure people into relationships.
Years later the devastating breadth of the deceit would be unravelled by police and laid out in court. The case has gone under the radar of Melbourne’s media but represents a chilling warning for a hyperconnected world, where reality can be twisted to bring real lives undone.
That unsettling phone call was one of the last times Lincoln spoke to his childhood friend.
Within a matter of years, Emma was dead.
Falling in love with Lincoln
Emma’s friends knew her as a vivacious and lively young woman.
As a teenager she loved dancing and musical theatre. In her mid-20s she started working as an international flight attendant, earning praise from managers as a perfect role model.
In 2011, a few weeks after a bad relationship break-up, Emma received a Facebook friend request from an old childhood friend, celebrity Lincoln Lewis. She had no problem accepting the request and the pair quickly struck up conversation.
The interactions soon evolved into what Emma thought was a full-fledged romance, albeit online.
Her new boyfriend flooded her with a constant stream of photos from his life.
She felt included, close to him.
Privy even to family moments.
At first, she didn’t question her new boyfriend’s authenticity.
Her Lincoln was able to confidently rattle off personal details about school and his acting career. When they spoke on the phone the person on the other end sounded like the Lincoln she remembered.
The conversations were flirty.
He shared raunchy pictures that appeared to be taken just for her.
She replied with her own revealing photos and videos.
The pair arranged to meet on multiple occasions, but Lincoln would always pull out at the last minute. Emma accepted that the young actor was busy, but eventually doubts crept in.
Why wouldn’t he see her face to face?
She called an old friend who knew the real Lincoln Lewis. He confirmed the Facebook account was fake and the phone number calling her did not belong to the Australian actor.
The penny had finally dropped.
Emma realised she’d spent the past few months in a digital romance with a complete stranger.
Confronting the catfish
Emma and the real Lincoln Lewis spoke on the phone only once more after the initial call.
He decided to cut off contact, later telling the Heidelberg Magistrates’ Court he felt powerless to stop the catfish, and feared for not only his public image but his family’s safety.
“I had concerns of who might be doing such a thing, what else might they be doing? I went into kind of a panic mode.”
He’d soon learn Emma’s experience was not an isolated one. While on holiday in Bali, a stranger approached him, thinking they were online mates. The situation became so bad he warned followers on social media.
Emma was also keen to put an end to the ordeal.
She video-called the person who had been claiming to be Lincoln Lewis.
“I requested that he show his face and he did. The footage appeared to be of the real Lincoln and I recognised him but could not see him clearly as it was dark,” she would later say in a police statement.
“I think that these people were using real video footage of Lincoln but were using a different voice over the top.”
She filmed the interaction but police weren’t interested.
“The person eventually revealed their true identity and told me that their name was Michael Jason Smith.
“He told me that he and his friends had, as a joke, set up a fake Facebook account for Lincoln and were talking to people on the page as a joke.
“He said that things got out of hand and he became interested in me.”
Emma demanded Michael stop contacting her and warned she had already gone to police. It appeared to work. But not long afterwards, she received a message from a Facebook profile claiming to be an ex-boyfriend.
so i see ur in sydney tomorrow
since ur in sydney till saturday we must catch up just like old times wat u say?
She was immediately suspicious.
Was Michael Smith at it again?
She confronted him, but he denied being behind the strange message, saying he’d “learnt his lesson”.
It was a lie.
But it worked.
Emma continued to talk to Michael, even confide in him.
He would send Emma photos to convince her he was the real deal.
Some appeared to be doctored.
Others are ripped straight from the internet.
It was enough to trick Emma into feeling an emotional bond yet again.
“We would talk to each other each day,” Emma said in a police statement. “At some stage we commenced what I would describe as a romantic relationship.”
Sometime after they began their relationship Michael had revealed to Emma his actual name was Danny Jason MacGreene, or Danny Mac for short. He was, he said, a British actor who had adopted the Michael Smith alias to escape a stalker ex-girlfriend. It was a necessary concession since the photos he was sending were of the star, who is well-known in Britain for his role in the TV soap Hollyoaks.
Michael: BABY!! Wow it has definitely been a roller coaster love story thats for sure…I’m pretty certain that I am the luckiest guy alive…
Emma: Baby I will always hug you when I’m there… Miss you when I’m not.. I will you everyday & love you for eternity….I love you Michael Jason Smith xxxx
While Emma’s feelings deepened for a man she had not met, she began to receive a bombardment of threats from anonymous sources, sometimes as many as 80 messages a day.
Michael convinced Emma he too was a victim of online abuse.
He showed her screenshots of menacing messages he’d received from similar names and numbers.
Emma even uncovered what she thought was a fake Michael Smith account, which tried to pressure her into sending naked photos. She immediately warned Michael about the apparent imposter.
The whole thing, though, was a ruse.
The tormentor was creating a cast of characters — some seemingly friendly, others malicious — to manipulate and confuse Emma.
The catfish created entire conversations between Michael Smith and celebrities including DJ Havana Brown to show he was living the high life.
It was all laying the groundwork for a dramatic plot constructed by the catfish: the kidnapping of Michael Smith.
Michael had told Emma he’d left a dysfunctional and violent family back in the UK.
The family was demanding he come home.
One night, Emma received a bizarre string of messages detailing an unfolding physical attack.
Michael: that really hurt
Michael: That was straight in the gut
Michael: That punch
Michael: I’m going to vomit
Michael: My ribs are gone
Michael: OMG HELP ME
Emma: Baby nooooo
It was just the start of a disturbing escalation.
First there were threats.
Listen u dum slut of a bitch get me in contact wif ur boyfrnd or he suffas da consequences
tymz runnin out u slut get me in cntct wif him or hell pay tik tok tik tok
Then came news that would shock Emma to the core.
A man claiming to be a federal police officer sent her a series of photos, including one where her boyfriend seemed to be bound and gagged.
Michael had been kidnapped.
“I was in tears, I was shaking, and I felt panicked.
“I was so distressed that I was taken off flights and felt like I was jeopardising my job,” she later told police.
Her frantic attempts to contact her missing boyfriend went unanswered, but soon she was sent a message from a man claiming to be Michael’s brother, who confirmed police were on the case. Emma even hired a private investigator to help find Michael. But rather than tracking down the kidnappers, the sleuth discovered the social media accounts associated with the kidnapping were fake.
Finally, one of Emma’s calls to Michael got through.
“Michael told me that he had been in Miami all week and that is why he had not answered my telephone calls,” she said in a 2012 police statement.
So, the kidnapping was a fake.
But even then Emma didn’t suspect Michael had been playing her.
“I am maintaining my relationship with Michael Smith.
“I have never met him in person and although I realise that is not usual I cannot walk away from him and I have seen him on Skype.
“I am in love with him.”
‘wen r u going 2 kill urself?’
Although the kidnapping drama was over, the anonymous harassment continued — and intensified, taking on cruel new forms.
hey slut guess wat else we just uncovrd? emma ur life is bout 2 cum crashin dwn n no 1 can help ya
how’s ur depression going? cuz were jus getting startd n darling u hav no 1 2 support ya
When she landed in LA after a flight she received a message from someone threatening to visit her family with “big guns blazing”, prompting Queensland police to put a rapid response notice on her parents’ house.
One day, Emma’s sister found her under the bed sheets, on her mobile phone, crying. The person on the line told her if she hung up personal details and intimate photos would be leaked to her employer. Emma was kept hostage on the phone for hours.
“She was under the covers shaking uncontrollably, sobbing,” Emma’s sister recounted to the Heidelberg Magistrates’ Court.
“She was saying, ‘Please, please, please, have mercy, please don’t’.”
Emma’s family received constant prank calls and emails with photos of Emma in lingerie and sexually suggestive poses.
Perversely, at the same time the catfish was also sending Emma anonymous care packages with chocolates and teddy bears.
She would receive late night phone calls where love ballads would be played down the line.
The harasser knew it was all getting to Emma.
“I was so emotional that sometimes I would be throwing up and losing weight,” Emma’s police statement said. “I wake up screaming having had nightmares about all these communications.
“I have thought about committing suicide and have even got to the point where I wanted to stab myself in the stomach, hang myself, overdose.”
Emma was seeing a psychologist to deal with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“She said she couldn’t live a normal life,” Emma’s sister told court.
“She said she had lost the ability to function, she described to me that her mind and body were out of sync.”
Last year, Emma killed herself.
Jess*, like Emma, worked as a flight attendant and lived in Brisbane.
She met the real Lincoln Lewis aboard a flight in 2009. The two had some friendly banter about how Jess had a crush on another Home and Away star. Before the flight landed, Jess got a quick snap with the celebrity. Soon after, she submitted a Facebook friend request to Lincoln and was buoyed that he accepted.
It would emerge much later that she had in fact sent that request to an imposter.
At first, Jess didn’t interact much with the fake profile. But a couple of years later she received a surprise message. The person purporting to be Lincoln said cabin crew had been spreading lies about him and he wanted their contact details to tell them to stop. In particular, he wanted to get in contact with another flight attendant named Emma, the same Emma enduring a barrage of abuse from the catfish. Jess refused to hand over any personal details. For starters, she didn’t know Emma. It was also against company policy to disclose personal details, she explained.
The fake Lincoln Lewis eventually gave up and changed tone. He told Jess he was in LA for a premiere of the Will Smith-directed movie After Earth. He was sitting in his hotel room bored. Could he call her?
“I said, ‘yeah of course’,” Jess recounted to the Heidelberg Magistrates’ Court years later.
“Being a single mum, I don’t have many men to talk to, so I was quite flattered.”
The phone rang.
“It sounded kind of like a teenager whose voice is in the midst of breaking. I had no reason to think it was anyone else but Lincoln.”
That seemingly innocent conversation was, in Jess’s words, the beginning of her “nightmare”.
‘I’m outside your house’
Jess’s story shares many similarities with Emma’s.
She struck up what she thought was a profound connection with the young actor. Aside from phone calls and online chat, the pair occasionally communicated via Skype. Jess didn’t think much of it at the time, but the vision was pixelated and the voice out of sync.
“We talked about everything,” she told the court.
“It seemed like this person had a lot of time on their hands because they messaged me all day long.”
The Lincoln Lewis persona even helped Jess’s daughter with her homework.
“It was quite refreshing to have a supposedly nice-looking young man pay an interest in me.”
The friendship was fast evolving into something much more personal. The fake Lincoln sent sexual pictures, pressuring Jess to respond with her own.
Concern crept in as her online boyfriend kept pulling out when they planned to meet face-to-face. But when she confronted him, the fake Lincoln was able to convince her he was genuine. For instance, when Jess mentioned she’d bought her daughter a Bubble O’Bill ice-cream, he sent a photo of himself eating one too.
The catfish explained the media would go after him if it was revealed he was in a relationship with an older woman.
Again, there was evidence.
Jess was sent an article about the pair that her online boyfriend claimed had appeared briefly on a popular gossip website.
“It was a roller coaster,” Jess told the court.
“Every time I would get suspicious they were very cunning and without a beat [would] be able to explain anything I found out.
“They would always have an excuse that sounded plausible.”
The web of lies unravelled six weeks into the online relationship.
Jess’s Lincoln said he was in Sydney, but the real Lincoln Lewis tweeted photos of himself in Brisbane, watching the State of Origin.
Finally, the catfish had been caught out.
With the help of a mutual friend, Jess managed to contact the real Lincoln, who confirmed she had been conned.
Jess did what she could to block the catfish. But the person persisted and somehow Jess was drawn back in.
“I wanted to know who this person was,” she told the court.
“I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering.”
Police did not take Jess’s initial complaint seriously, so she decided to investigate the matter herself. She continued the online relationship with a glimmer of hope that the person claiming to be Lincoln would turn out to be genuine after all.
Jess: Everytime a car goes past my heart skips a beat
Lincoln Lewis: Lol get some sleep. I’ll text you when I’m outside.
One day, after yet another broken promise to meet up, the fake Lincoln claimed he was outside her home watching from the bushes. To prove it, the person told Jess he could see her in a “beautiful” blue dress and her daughter wearing a school uniform.
Both descriptions were correct.
Suddenly the online scam had entered the real world.
Jess, terrified for her family’s safety, was forced to move house and change her daughter’s school.
Catching the catfish
Behind the scenes, Jess had started to work with Queensland Police, who were closing in on the catfish. They hatched a plan to help snare the scammer and asked Jess if she could record their telephone conversations. It would, after all, be valuable evidence. Jess agreed and was given a recording device.
By this stage, the catfish had adopted the Michael Smith persona to try to woo back Jess. She played along, secretly recording their calls.
“The safest thing to do right now is not upset this person,” she concluded.
“I’ll pretend I’ve forgiven them.”
Michael even offered to help Jess out with her finances. That gave detectives an idea. They told Jess to get Michael to send her money, to establish a link between the real-life stalker and the online persona. Jess, again, agreed to do what was necessary. She told Michael her mobile phone screen was broken but she didn’t have the money to fix it. Michael said he would loan her the money.
Jess: I have no funds…
Michael: I’ll put in some money today then talk to my accountant and bank and out you like $200
It was a game-changing moment.
The person, perhaps out of a sheer dedication to furthering the illusion, went to a Westpac branch and deposited $200 into Jess’s account. Little did they know that security cameras filmed the entire interaction, providing one of the first glimpses of the catfish.
It was a young woman from Melbourne.
The woman behind it all
Lydia Abdelmalek was surprised to see the ABC cameras at the Heidelberg Magistrates’ Court.
The 29-year-old had used anonymity to stalk her victims for years.
Now, she was exposed.
The court heard Abdelmalek had never met Jess or Emma. There’s no evidence that she’s even been to Queensland. From her home in Melbourne’s northern suburbs she dedicated at least four years of her life to impersonating various personas, some real, some imagined.
Abdelmalek gained no significant financial advantage from the scam. She used Emma to secure a cheap flight for her brother, but years later she was willing to send money to Jess.
Instead, she manipulated the emotions of her victims and has not, to this date, provided an explanation.
The Melbourne woman was not required to take the stand at court. She showed no emotion, apart from the odd moment of frustration or disbelief as the evidence piled up against her.
Her Facebook account is a contradiction of her catfish profile.
Abdelmalek’s own online presence gives no hint of the criminal stalking she was doing behind the scenes. At the time of this post she had been arrested for multiple stalking offences. (Facebook: Lydia Abdulmalek)
She liked an inspirational meme: “Shout out to those having a hard time right now. Remember, this is only temporary.”
On her mum’s birthday she posted a loving message: “Your love has always inspired me, your heart has always guided me.”
She watched season four of the TV show The Bachelor, celebrated Melbourne Storm’s 2017 rugby league premiership, and boasted about having a few too many drinks on a night out.
She comes from a close-knit Coptic Christian community and would regularly attend church.
While questions remain about motive, it is clear Abdelmalek deployed a unique set of skills to infiltrate her victims’ lives. She uncovered the contact details of family members and repeatedly fooled Optus staff into revealing confidential information, even when a security pin was protecting the account.
Evidence shows Abdelmalek tried to get her victims to delete their conversation history. But the attempt to scrub years of evidence was in vain. A lengthy investigation by police officers in Queensland and Victoria had zeroed in on the catfish.
Her home was raided in April 2016. She was arrested. Huge volumes of evidence were collected. The harassment suddenly stopped.
In a three-week hearing, Detective Senior Constable Kellie Moore and prosecutor Sergeant Luke Devlin outlined a slew of evidence against Abdelmalek.
Officers linked various phone numbers used in the scheme back to the accused. Her IP address was also linked to various email accounts and the Optus hack. Gifts she had sent her victims had her parents’ PO box as the return address.
Jess and Emma had provided hours of audio recordings of the stalker that police matched with the accused’s voice.
Her mobile phones were littered with usernames, passwords, phone numbers, love letters and photos of her victims and the celebrities she impersonated.
In the eyes of police, it was impossible anyone other than Abdelmalek was responsible.
The magistrate agreed, describing the circumstantial evidence as “overwhelming”.
Abdelmalek was found guilty of stalking six people, including Jess and Emma.
She will be sentenced in June.
‘Blood on her hands’
It became clear in court that Lydia Abdelmalek’s actions have profoundly scarred her victims. Jess continues to battle with post-traumatic stress disorder. She’s lost friends as trauma and embarrassment made her distant to those she loved most.
“I’m a trusting person and want to believe the best in people,” Jess told the court. “Why would someone say they’re someone they’re not?
“I’ve been single since. I haven’t allowed myself to trust anyone. I will never be the same.”
Even her young daughter shows signs of anxiety.
“She would cry if I left the room,” Jess told the court.
Jess never met Emma in person, but after Abdelmalek’s arrest the pair bonded on the phone. They had each endured so much over the years and the wheels of justice were finally turning. But Emma was struggling. She had been furnishing police with a trove of evidence but the whole process was a reminder of her grief. She texted Jess saying she couldn’t cope.
That was just a few days before Emma’s suicide.
If you or anyone you know needs help with an eating disorder:
“That’s something that will stay with me for the rest of my life,” Jess told the court.
“This person has blood on her hands as far as I’m concerned.
“She took Emma from her family.”
* Names have been changed to protect victims.
* Photos are drawn from the case of Jess and were tendered as evidence to the Heidelberg Magistrates’ Court.