A flight attendant — manipulated into believing she was in a devoted and loving online relationship with a TV star she met while working — spent years being duped by an imposter in what’s being described as the worst case of catfishing authorities in Australia have ever seen.
In 2011, Jess, who did not reveal her last name for privacy, was working her dream job as a flight attendant, exposing her to some of the world’s wealthiest and most influential celebrities.
“You couldn’t beat it. Didn’t feel like a job, it was a lifestyle,” the single mother told 60 Minutes Australia during an interview on Sunday.
While working, the young flight attendant met Australian actor and heart-throb Lincoln Lewis, who played Geoff Campbell in the Australian soap opera “Home and Away.”
After Jess and Lewis hit it off during the flight, she reached out to who she believed to be Lewis over Facebook.
What seemed to be the promising seeds of a possible relationship planted, ended up setting in motion a decades-long tale of lies and deception at the whims of the unsuspecting flight attendant’s innocence.
“People will never understand, and they’ll always think, ‘How can you be so stupid?’” Jess told the outlet. “Until you’re in it, you won’t understand how difficult it is to get out of it.”
Jess ended up as one of five women stalked and harassed by Lydia Abdelmalek — an online catfisher with multiple fraudulent online personas.
Abdelmalek, 33, posed as fan-favorite actors and would obtain private details from the unaware women to be used as ammunition for blackmail.
The catfisher’s dissipative actions were so severe that they drove a woman, named only as Emma, to take her own life in 2018, according to 60 Minutes Australia.
“This person had a very cunning way of extracting information,” Jess said.
After two years of talking, Jess started a long-distance relationship with the catfish in 2013, communicating exclusively over the phone and through text messages, never meeting in person due to what was being portrayed as conflicting schedules.
“You know, when a nice young man starts paying you compliments and knows, seems to know a lot about you, it’s very flattering,” she said during the interview.
The facade was reinforced by the catfisher sending pictures that correlated with their conversations.
“I’d be talking to him, and I’d be saying, ‘What are you doing?’ and he’s like, ‘I’m having lunch with my sister.’ and then he’d send a photo of him with his sister having lunch,” she revealed in the interview.
As more time passed, all attempts made by Jess to meet in person were thwarted by “excuses.”
“I started to have niggling doubts but I thought why would anyone contact me and, you know, want to lie to me?” Jess said.
As the doubts simmered over the relationship’s legitimacy, she requested they chat over Skype — with the catfisher agreeing.
“The phone rang and sure enough, here is Lincoln Lewis talking to me,” Jess said.
Abdelmalek fooled Jess into thinking she was speaking with Lewis by using software that can take video footage of a person, making an unknowing victim like Jess believe she was talking with the actor, according to the outlet.
“I just remember seeing him talking. I would say something and there’d be a bit of a delay and then a few minutes later you would see him, like, kind of laughing and throwing his head back.”
As Jess’s doubts were dwindling, a colleague contacted her saying that Lewis was on a flight into Brisbane.
“The time that they were in the air – where he wouldn’t have been able to have contacted me – was the time that I had been talking to him all morning,” Jess said.
Feeling conned, she got in contact with the real Lincoln Lewis, with the heartbreaking news being unshadowed.
“He said, ‘Jess, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that this has happened to you but it’s not me.’ He said, ‘It’s never been me.’” Jess recalled her conversations with the actor.
“It’s not a person. It’s a disgusting, subhuman creature. No one that’s human could do that to another person. Could be so vindictive and so evil … it’s disgusting,” Jess said of the fake Lincoln Lewis after revealing the truth.
She abruptly cut off the catfish — changing her number to ensure she wouldn’t be contacted, which only worsened the already troubling waters.
Within 10 minutes with her new number, Abdelmalek contacted Optus to get Jess’s new number and relentlessly began stalking her.
“I remember one night, I was in the fetal position on my bed. I’d had 50, 60 messages in a row with threats about my daughter,” Jess said.
Trying to escape the torment at the fingertips of Abdelmalek, Jess was forced to move twice and change her daughter’s school — but nothing stopped the catfisher’s pursuit.
Reporting the incident to the police, Jess launched an investigation with the authorities to dupe the catfisher into revealing their identity.
Sparking up the dialogue again with the fake Lewis, Jess asked for money for a new phone to continue talking — requesting the money be deposited into her bank account.
Abdelmalek — still posing as Lewis — agreed and was arrested by police following the transfer.
Believing the catfisher was a man, it shocked Jess that the master of manipulation was actually a woman in her 20s.
“For so long, the person that I spoke with, in my mind, 1000 percent was a man,” Jess said. “it’s hard to convey how I felt at the time … I wanted to vomit,” she told the outlet.
Abdelmalek was found guilty of six counts of stalking and was initially sentenced to two years and eight months in jail.
Immediately following the 2019 ruling, Abdelmalek appealed the verdict to the Victorian County Court, the outlet reported.
Last year, Judge Claire Quin upheld the guilty verdict and increased the catfisher’s sentence to four years in jail, saying her actions had “significant consequences” for the victims.
“In this case, as we saw, the main difficulty is identifying who the actual perpetrator is, and that took years and years of diligent detective work to prove in this case,” Former Australian Federal Police fraud investigator, Tam McLaughlin, told 60 Minutes Australia.
Despite no longer having her heart manipulated, Jess still has emotional scars from the ordeal.
“Even though I know it’s not my fault, I still can’t help feeling to blame for it happening. So I don’t trust myself with any future relationships or anything like that.”