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What Catfishing Is and How to Identify It

Monica Webster

You’ve just met someone wonderful online. The person is good-looking, kind, and charming, and you seem to get along better and better. It took only a week for you two to fall for each other. But there also is something strange about all this. Your online friend disappears for days and keeps avoiding live conversation even after a few weeks of messaging. This could be 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 it.

Why is it called catfishing?

The term comes from the 2010 documentary Catfish, which we recommend you watch. It is a heartbreaking story about a young photographer Yaniv Schulman, who started a romantic relationship through Facebook. The woman 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 to make the cods more active and ensure their quality. 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 deeper psychological motivations, while some can be purely pragmatic or even pose fatal threats. Here are some reasons for this scam:

  • 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 at least to some extent. They try to create a strong emotional bond with the victims by attempting to relate to their deeply personal or even tragic events;

  • Monetary. Catfishers can also seek monetary gain by inventing various stories on why they need money right away. 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 to move on. 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. There were cases when online predators used fake identities to lure their victims to meet them 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 severe psychological problems or even 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 a lot. Victims usually invest time and effort into the relationship, and realizing the deception can be painful.

How to identify catfish?

If your communication with a new online friend follows some of these patterns, there is a chance that you got catfished:

  • The person is always reluctant to meet or have any live interaction. They keep giving 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 a lot 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 begins escalating very quickly right 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 an online conversation;

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

  • Their social media profiles are flat and lack genuine feel. If they have very few friends, are not tagged in any photos, and the whole profile shows little human activity, it is an obvious 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?

These are a few things you can do if you suspect your online friend being a catfish:

  • Do not meet live with a person you do not know properly;

  • Consider reporting a fake profile;

  • Never send any money or give out any personal information as it might be used against you;

  • Do not click on any links they give you.

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