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'Can I tell you a secret?': The crimes of Matthew Hardy

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In October 2022, the Guardian launched a new podcast, Can I Tell You a Secret?. The six-episode investigative series focused on one man, Matthew Hardy, and his crimes: prolific catfishing, harassment, stalking and abuse, starting in 2009 and continuing until 2021.

Journalist Sirin Kale investigated how one man was able to catfish at least 62 women for over a decade, often turning their friends, family and colleagues against them. And he did it all without seeming to face any lasting repercussions. That was until January 2022, when he was sentenced to nine years in prison, the longest ever to be given for stalking.

Who is Matthew Hardy?

31-year-old Matthew Hardy became Britain’s worst cyber-stalker. Before that, he was a bullied teenager, who had autism, mental health issues and learning difficulties. His classmates and mother reported that he was isolated, and that he had cruel pranks played on him.

In 2009, in the very early days of social media, Hardy began targeting the girls at his school. He sent them messages from fake accounts, claiming to be someone else, saying things like their boyfriend was cheating on them. They all started the same way: ‘Can I tell you a secret?’.

The girls compared notes, realised it was Hardy and called him out, ignoring the messages he sent. But that didn’t stop Hardy’s crimes from continuing and escalating over the ensuing decade.

What did he do?

Hardy created hundreds of fake profiles—some of friends and family of his victims, others of the victims themselves, which he would then use to disrupt their lives, messaging people close to them to perpetuate lies. One woman was told that her fiancé was having an affair—on her wedding day. The woman he was allegedly cheating with was another of Hardy’s targets.

Women would be bombarded with hundreds of messages a day, over social media and WhatsApp. Accounts would be blocked, but new ones would crop up and the harassment would continue.

He turned people against the victims, effectively isolating them. He deliberately attempted to break up relationships. He cloned his targets’ profiles and used the fake accounts to procure more personal information he could then use against them. In other cases, while posing as his victims, he initiated sexual conversations with people his victims knew personally.

Who were his victims?

One of the girls Hardy targeted at school came under attack again a year later. Her mother had just died. Then she got a message from someone telling her her mother had been cheating on her dad.

Another victim, Amy Bailey, was called over 50 times a day. Hardy followed her, then text her letting her know she was being watched, commenting on her clothes or what she was doing.

One woman he went to school with received a message from her ‘grandmother’ after she had died.

Sabrina Cowley was accused by fake accounts of having affairs with acquaintances, close friends and her best friend’s husband. Profiles were created in her children’s names. She became scared to leave the house or to let her children go outside.

Hardy didn’t limit himself to the people he knew personally, either.

Abby Furness, an OnlyFans model and dancer, became a target after posting an Instagram photo of herself on a trip with a group of other influencers. When she got home, she started receiving messages, seemingly from those same people, asking personal questions. Then came accusations she’d cheated on her boyfriend with another of the women’s boyfriends. Her friends and family started receiving messages too, accusing Furness of having an affair with her own uncle. A former boss started chatting over WhatsApp with someone posing as Furness. He received nudes from her. The pressure ended Furness’ relationship with her boyfriend and even her family blamed her.

The women Hardy targeted were terrorised by his actions. Some lost their jobs, others lost friends and family, and some ended up on medication for depression and anxiety. They slept with weapons by their beds, so scared were they that Hardy’s stalking would escalate further. Their safety came into question, and their confidence and self-esteem was dismantled.

When was he arrested?

Although it took until 2022 for Hardy to be sentenced, there were arrests beforehand. Cheshire police force alone received over 100 complaints about Hardy.

Most of the time, the women were told to simply stop using social media, to block him. But in some cases, those complaints led to arrests. He pled guilty to hacking Samantha Boniface, receiving a suspended sentence, restraining order and 250 hours of community service.

In 2013, he pled guilty to harassing and hacking Amy Bailey, receiving another restraining order and a suspended sentence. He was arrested again in 2016, but the CPS declined to take the case further.

Even when Hardy broke restraining orders, he seemed to evade consequences. It was the victims who were told to change their behaviour, to come offline, even though that never stopped Hardy.

How long is his sentence?

In 2019, PC Kevin Anderson was assigned to a case that involved Hardy. He looked back over police records and found the full extent of his behaviour. The file on the case was 700 pages long. Anderson took the evidence to the court, working with the victims to finally secure justice.

In 2020, Hardy was arrested. In 2021, he was charged, but this still didn’t stop him from contacting his targets and acquiring new ones. Finally, he pled guilty to the charges and in January 2022, was given a nine-year sentence. It has since been reduced to eight years.

For the victims who thought Hardy would only receive a few months, it was a victory. But the impacts of his crimes live on. Ultimately, one question still remains: why was he allowed to get away with it for so long?

Check out our true crime podcast hub for podcast features and interviews, plus full episodes of the Murdertown podcast.