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What Catfishing Is and How to Identify It

Lukas Grigas
Cybersecurity Content Writer

You’ve just met someone wonderful online. The person is good looking, kind, and charming, and your relationship seems to be progressing. It took only a week for you to fall for each other. But your online friend suddenly disappears for days and avoids live conversation even after weeks of messaging. Unfortunately, you could be facing a case of catfishing.

What is catfishing?

Catfishing is a scam where someone creates a fake online identity and uses it to establish online relationships. Catfishers use attractive photos of other people, sometimes models or actors, and create narratives full of false details to convince victims that they are genuine.

Catfishing is often used for romantic purposes, with the impostor seeking affection and establishing a close intimate relationship with the victim.

While this type of fraud wasn’t possible before the internet, the anonymity provided by the wild world of the web allows it to thrive. Fraudsters usually employ social networking or dating sites for their nefarious goals.

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Why is it called catfishing?

The term catfishing comes from the 2010 documentary Catfish, which we recommend you watch. It is a heartbreaking story about a young photographer, Yaniv Schulman, who starts a romantic relationship through Facebook. The woman he falls for had created an elaborate narrative of her life by involving other people and using fake photos and YouTube recordings.

When Yaniv meets her in real life, her husband tells a story about how catfish are shipped together with cods. He draws a parallel to real life, stating that some people keep others alert and active — and his wife is one of those people.

Why do people catfish?

Some catfishing cases have psychological motivations, while some can be purely pragmatic or even pose a fatal threat. Reasons people conduct this scam can be broken into several categories:

  • Psychological. A person may seek something they can’t attain in real life, such as emotional warmth, affection, or a romantic relationship. Online communication allows them to experience these feelings. They try to create a strong emotional bond with the victim by attempting to relate to their deeply personal or even tragic life events.

  • Monetary. Catfishers may seek monetary gain by inventing various stories about why they need money. For example, they might claim to be stuck in a foreign country and need money to get home or that they are broke at the moment and need some financial support. However, if they find they can get money from you, they will keep asking you for it, and the sums will most likely increase.

  • Predatory. Cases when online predators used fake identities to lure their victims into meeting in real life and then robbed, raped, or even murdered them.

  • Entertainment. Sometimes fraudsters use catfishing to entertain themselves, make fun of other people, or manipulate their feelings. This type of abusive behavior is harmful and can lead victims to experience psychological problems or suicidal thoughts.

As you can see, the damage may vary, but even if an impostor does not pose direct physical harm, being a catfishing victim can still hurt. Victims usually invest time and effort into the relationship, and realizing the deception can be painful.

How to identify a catfish

If your communication with a new online friend follows some of these patterns, you might be catfished:

  • The person is always reluctant to meet or have any live interaction. They make excuses – for example, they do not have a proper camera, are too shy, never have time, or live with someone else.

  • The profile looks too good to be true. If you meet someone with stunning looks, lots of interests, a perfect lifestyle, and no identifiable flaws, that can be a sign of a catfish.

  • It’s hard to identify the location of the person or they’re always traveling. Of course, some people do travel regularly for work or have a nomadic lifestyle, but catfishers may use these motives to disguise their true whereabouts or just show how cool they are.

  • The relationship escalates quickly from the start. If they’re prepared to be engaged before getting to know you, it’s a sign that something is not right. You can’t fall in love with a person just by having a few lines of online conversation.

  • The person frequently disappears. Fraudsters can sometimes back off so that they have time to come up with a new narrative to push the relationship further. They even can have several online “partners” at a time.

  • Their social media profiles do not appear to be genuine. If they have very few friends, are not tagged in any photos, and the profile shows little human activity, it is a red flag.

  • Some details of their life do not add up.

  • They start asking for money without knowing you properly.

What to do if you encounter a catfish

You can do the following if you suspect your online friend being a catfish:

  • Do not meet a person face to face you do not know properly.

  • Reporting the fake profile.

  • Never send money or give out personal information because it might be used against you.

  • Do not click on links they give you.

  • Do your own research. Try to find out who might be behind the attack.

  • Ask questions. Start by questioning new online acquaintances to find out as much as possible about them , especially if it’s a person you have never met offline.

  • If you have concerns, talk to someone you trust. They may be able to help identify catfishing.

  • Adjust your privacy settings on social media. Make your profiles private to limit the chances of being catfished.

Bottom line

Catfishing is a deceptive activity that bad actors love to use to gain access to sensitive data or even financial assistance from their potential victim. Being aware is key. Always look out for signs that could indicate that the person you’re interacting with online might not be who they claim to be. If you happen to spot a catfish, don’t hesitate to call out the person and report the profile. Stay mindful, and you’ll enjoy a safe and smooth online experience.

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