A 56-year-old hairdresser from California thought she found the man of her dreams on a popular online dating website. Unfortunately, his profile—showing an attractive divorced Marine serving in Afghanistan—was a fake, which the victim didn’t discover until she was duped out of her $273,000 life savings. She had fallen prey to a practice called “catfishing.”
What is catfishing?
Catfishing is the fabrication of an online identity to lure someone into a relationship, often to steal money. The culprit (or “catfish”) may steal photos and other personal information to create a fake profile to lure victims, building trust through long text or phone conversations—but never in person.
Catfishing can start through unsolicited Facebook invites, chat room meets or—like the California hairdresser—fake profiles on dating sites. A 2018 Consumer Reports survey of online daters found 35% of respondents felt they’d been grossly misled by someone’s profile, and 12% felt they’d been scammed.
As more people build love and relationships online, the number of people being catfished has risen, too. The Federal Trade Commission says more than 21,000 people reported losses of $143 million in 2018 to online dating scams alone.
Why is it called catfishing?
Some believe that the name was revived in the popular vernacular courtesy of a 2010 documentary film called “Catfish.” The film follows a young photographer as he develops a relationship with a woman on Facebook he thinks is young and single, but she’s really 40 years old and married. The term comes from an anecdote from the film about how catfish are put into tanks of live cod shipments to keep the fish active in transit.
The documentary led to a popular MTV series by the same name about online dating—and frequent situations in which one party has been lying to the other.
Profile of a catfisher
People catfish for a variety of reasons. Some do it for financial gain, but others simply enjoy the deception. “There’s a thrill that people get out of catfishing,” said Robert Siciliano, security awareness expert and CEO of Safr.me. “They enjoy the hunt, they enjoy manipulating people and they like the emotional connection that they have with their victim.”
Other people catfish because they’re lonely, have low self-esteem and desire to escape. Still others catfish to bully people. “I’ve seen mothers catfishing their daughters’ classmates because their classmates were bullying their daughter,” Siciliano said. “It’s become a tool for anybody with a vendetta.”
Common signs of catfishing
There are several catfish warning signs, experts say:
- They get serious fast. Within three to five communications, many romantic catfishers are already talking about love and marriage. “Those are triggers to get people deeper into the relationship,” Siciliano said. “They go in really fast and early on.”
- They seem too good to be true. If the person you’re corresponding with seems too perfect to be real, they might not be. They might also be peddling a promising offer, such as an investment opportunity for you to quickly double your cash.
- They can’t meet in person. If they’re constantly coming up with reasons why you can only interact via text or phone, that’s a sign. “Anybody who avoids meeting in person is definitely scamming in some way,” said Alexis Germany, relationship strategist with fashion site Glamcheck Inc.
- Their English and grammar are off. If this person isn’t claiming that English is their second language, but their spelling is atrocious or their sentences seem like they were run through an online translator, beware. Try to talk to them on the phone. “If they won’t talk to you, and they have no real reason for why their grammar and spelling are so off, that’s a strong indicator that they’re in another country,” Germany said.
- They travel internationally constantly. Anyone who says they are an international businessperson of sorts could be an imposter. “It sounds amazing, but all of a sudden they’re in a different country or city every week, so that’s why they can never meet,” said Germany. “That’s a situation where you really need to tread lightly and investigate further.”
- They ask you for money. When someone you’ve never met starts asking you for cash, no matter how emotionally attached you feel, it’s a warning sign. “The second they ask for money or bring money into the discussion, that is a complete red flag,” Siciliano said. “Run in the opposite direction.”
How to avoid being catfished
Getting scammed in this way can take a financial and emotional toll—but if you’re careful, you can keep yourself safe from this kind of con.
- Google them. No matter how great or legit someone seems, it’s worth doing an internet search to make sure they’re presenting themselves honestly. You can also do a Google image search with their photos to see where else they pop up. For instance, David Avrin’s photos have been used hundreds of times to catfish women out of money. “It’s a significant issue in my life, dealing with four or five women a week contacting me, telling me that they have been scammed by someone using my pictures,” said Avrin, a Colorado-based business marketing speaker.
- Do a background check. If your internet hunt turns up nothing, it’s still a good idea to do a background search on someone if you want to get serious.
- Call, FaceTime or Skype the person. It’s a good idea to speak—or ideally, be able to see them on video call—before you meet up. You’ll get a better feel for them before you arrange an in-person meeting.
- Meet in person as soon as possible. The longer a relationship stays online only, the further down the rabbit hole you can go with someone who ostensibly could be an imposter. “The sooner you can meet in person, the better, because you can start to see if their story remains the same,” Germany said.
- Involve your loved ones. If your new “friend” is urging you to keep your correspondence with them a secret, that’s another flag. Make sure your friends or family know that you’re chatting with this person. If someone you haven’t met in person asks you to send money, even in an emergency situation, run the scenario by a trusted friend. They can help you determine if you might be a target or if something feels fishy.
Generally, vigilance and common sense can help you avoid these kinds of situations. As flattering as it might feel to have someone completely enamored with you, things that seem too good to be true often are.