Meeting new love interests online is now more popular than meeting them through friends, at bars and through other more historically conventional methods. With the rise of online dating and social media, most people are dating, hooking up and even making new friends from the comfort of their computer or smartphone screens.
Because of this, being catfished has become so prevalent in today’s culture that there’s even a television show of the same name. It’s been the plotline of movies, talk shows and a common topic of conversation everywhere from Reddit to Facebook.
With the prevalence of online dating and networking, it’s important to know the signs of being catfished and exactly what to do should it happen to you.
What is catfishing?
Catfishing is pretending to be someone you’re not, in an attempt to trick someone into carrying out a relationship. The motivation behind it varies in each case, but it can be as benign as seeking validation and companionship, or as malicious as attempting to deceive or trick the other person into sending money or other assets.
Catfishing isn’t limited to romantic relationships, and the possibilities are endless. Imagine pedophiles using fake identities to lure underage children, individuals pretending to be banks or businesses in order to steal your money, or even people pretending to be your distant relatives in order to collect personal data.
In fact, you’ve probably come across a version of a catfishing scheme without realizing it—does the Nigerian prince email scam sound familiar?
Why is it called catfishing?
The term “catfishing” caught on after the 2010 documentary “Catfish,” which highlighted the relationship between a New York City man and a supposed 19-year-old woman in the Midwest (who turned out to be a 40-year-old housewife). That woman’s husband noted the parallels between this relationship of deceit and a metaphor about live cod being transported from Alaska to China. During the journey, the cod would become inactive and lose their taste and texture by the time they reached their final destination.
It’s said that someone found that adding catfish to the vat helped the cod stay lively throughout the journey, improving their quality. The man compared these deceiving individuals to real-life catfish as those “who keep you on your toes, keep you thinking, keep you guessing.” The term stuck even further when MTV began producing “Catfish: The TV Show.”
How do people pull this off?
It’s unfortunately quite easy to catfish someone. All a potential catfish needs is access to a social media or online dating platform, a fake photo (usually stolen from social media or stock image websites), a fake name and an elaborate backstory to bring their character to life. Some even go so far as to create multiple social accounts (e.g., Facebook, Instagram and Tinder) to round out their personas and seem even more legitimate. A skilled catfish might tend to these accounts over time so they have comments, friends and likes before starting a friendship or relationship with a potential victim.
Why would someone want to do this?
There are several reasons someone may start a catfishing scheme: financial fraud, a perverse romantic experience or just for kicks—and in some cases, actual harm or malice. Other times, potential catfish are lonely and socially awkward. Some may even think it’s the only way they would have a chance at love or friendship.
Tyson, a 27-year-old gay man from Canada, said that in the past, he tried to catfish others out of fear of being alone. Before coming out to his friends and family, he would pose as a confident model on Grindr using photos he sourced from Google Images. “I didn’t mean any harm from it,” he said.
“Looking back, I know it was wrong, but I wanted the experience of a relationship without sharing who I was,” Tyson added. “I never allowed myself to get close enough to hurt anyone, but I definitely regret being dishonest with myself, and with others.”
How can I tell if I’m being catfished?
As with any online interaction, remember this foundational rule: You can never be sure of someone’s identity until you’ve met them in person. But when it comes to catfishing, keep an eye out for the following warning signs:
- They don’t have many followers or friends.
- They won’t Skype or take your phone calls.
- They avoid specific details about their life or job—or things just don’t add up.
- They live in your area but don’t want to meet in real life.
- They’re using someone else’s photos.
- The relationship is moving quickly.
- They’re asking you for money or other favors.
What should I do if I’ve been catfished?
If you think you’re being catfished, consider using a background check service to try and get a sense of the other person’s identity. At the same time, take things with a grain of salt—a catfisher could have done the same thing and used someone else’s background to assume their identity.
If you know you’ve been catfished, you have options. Depending on what the catfisher actually did—did they scam you out of money, or just make you feel foolish—taking legal action may be the best route to ensure your safety.
According to Kevin Darné, author of “Avoid The Catfish!: How To Date Online Successfully,” if you think you’ve been catfished, block the person immediately.
“Standard protocol is to block the catfish from all social media accounts, email and phone contact,” he said. “In the event money was conned out of the victim, they might try to get the authorities such as IC3 [Internet Crime Complaint Center] involved, especially if the catfish resides in the U.S.”
If you met through an online dating site/app or social media site, you can report the catfish to that website provider and have their account closed. Darné also notes that there are websites such as pigbusters.net and advocatingforu.com that allow people to post photos of romantic scammers and details about how they operate. The idea is to warn others and provide a platform that aids in the vetting process for potential mates.
Catfishing can happen to anyone, but it doesn’t have to get far if you know the signs. It’s probably impossible to be truly fully safe online, but it’s worth taking steps to try and better understand who you’re dealing with if you have any doubt that a new friend or potential partner may not be who they claim to be. Taking the proper precautions and trusting your intuition will help equip yourself to see to it that you’re only associating with genuine people.