What is Catfishing
People use social media platforms, dating apps, message boards, chat services, and video games to develop relationships and form connections, often with strangers. While the Internet has certainly made it more convenient for people to socialize from the comfort of their screens, bad actors like scammers, predators, and trolls are exploiting the situation with a deceptive practice called catfishing.
Catfishing can sometimes have devastating consequences for victims. The emotional toll of being deceived by someone you thought you could trust can result in mental health challenges, financial losses, and reputational damage.
Read this in-depth guide on Catfishing for more on:
- What is catfishing?
- Is catfishing illegal?
- Why do people catfish?
- How to prevent catfishing
Catfishing is a deceptive practice where a person creates a fake identity to trick others. Some people catfish to protect their own identities, live out a fantasy, or manipulate others emotionally. Others use catfishing as part of a social engineering attack.
Catfishers typically use stolen pictures and a fake identity to deceive people. They often target vulnerable individuals who are looking for love or companionship, and they will go to great lengths to create a convincing persona.
Catfishing signs: How to tell if someone is catfishing you
- Lack of images and videos or stolen media.
- Minimal social media presence or a very recently created profile
- No listings on search engines.
- Instant romantic attachments and love bombing.
- Avoiding video calls and face-to-face meetings
- Asking for money.
- Asking for explicit images or videos.
- Wild stories like being employed by the CIA or being in a terrible accident without proof.
Why is it called catfishing?
The term "catfishing" originated from the 2010 documentary Catfish by Nev Schulman. In the film, Schulman develops an online friendship with a girl, only to discover that her persona was a fabrication. Instead of the girl, Shulman discovers he was talking to a 40-year-old housewife. In the documentary, the catfisher’s husband shares a myth about live codfish being shipped in tanks with catfish to keep them active instead of lethargic. He compares the shipping practice with his wife’s behavior.
Catfishing isn’t necessarily illegal. It’s not unlawful to create a new persona on the Internet that doesn’t match your own. However, catfishing can be a precursor to illegal activity. For example, catfishers may use their fake identity to scam, defraud, harass or stalk others, which are illegal activities in many locations. In addition, if a catfisher is using someone else's identity for financial gain, the law may consider that to be identity theft.
There are many reasons why someone might catfish. Many are for malicious reasons, but not all are. However, even such seemingly innocuous cases of catfishing can have harmful psychological consequences on victims.
Catfishing can be used as a form of revenge or aggression against someone. Here, the catfisher creates a fake identity to harm the victim emotionally, psychologically, or financially. Jealous partners, rejected lovers, and stalkers are examples of people who may catfish for revenge or aggression.
As mentioned, some people may use catfishing as a way to protect their identity online. They may be afraid of being targeted by hackers or stalkers, or they may want to keep their personal information private. For example, some parents create fake profiles for their kids on the Internet to shield them from predators. Another example is an abuse survivor who creates a fake online Facebook profile to avoid being found by their ex-partner.
Catfishing can be a way for someone to boost their self-esteem or confidence. They may feel insecure about their appearance or social status and create a fake identity to be someone else on the Internet.
Catfishing can be used to harass or bully someone online. The catfisher may pretend to be someone else to gain the victim's trust and then use that trust to hurt or humiliate them. Online trolls sometimes use catfishing for cyberbullying.
Some catfishers create fake profiles to extract private information from their victims. They may use this information to steal the victim's identity, hack into their accounts, or commit other crimes. For example, a blackmailer may create a fake profile to form a relationship with their victim and then use their sensitive information to extort them.
Hackers, extortionists, corporate spies, and state-sponsored agents use forms of catfishing as social engineering attacks against targets. The goal of such threat actors may be to extract sensitive information or trick their target into installing malware like a computer worm, Trojan, spyware, or ransomware.
For example, pretexting is a type of phishing and social engineering attack where a threat actor pretends to be a co-worker, potential romantic interest, or authority figure in order to gain a victim’s trust before carrying out the attack.
Please read “What is phishing” to learn more about such attacks.
There have been many high-profile cases of catfishing in recent years. Some of the most well-known examples include:
- Anna Sorokin, also known as Anna Delvey, posed as a wealthy socialite to run various scams. She was the subject of articles, a podcast, a book, TV features, and a nine-episode Netflix show called Inventing Anna.
- Manti Te'o is a former football star who had an online relationship with Lennay Kekua. After an investigation by the sports blog Deadspin, it turned out that Kekua was not real. She was a fake personality created by Te’o’s friend. The catfishing story is the subject of the Netflix documentary, Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist.
- Israeli conman Simon Leviev (Shimon Hayut) used dating apps to scam women out of money to support his luxurious lifestyle while manipulating them emotionally.
- As mentioned above, Nev Schulman was catfished by a woman named Angela, who was posing as a younger woman named Megan. Nev was the subject of the documentary, Catfish, which popularized the term.
Some Cyberbullies use the cover of anonymity to abuse their targets. With catfishing, they can take cyberbullying to the next level by winning their target’s confidence to gain their confidential information or sensitive pictures and videos and shame them later.
There have been many tragic cases of abusers catfishing their targets to abduct them. Professional kidnapping gangs also use catfishing tactics in some countries to lure their targets.
Victims of catfishing may share sensitive information that their attackers may use for financial crimes, identity theft, or blackmail.
After gaining more information about their target through catfishing, an attacker may design a compelling spear-phishing attack for financial gain. They may use catfishing to gain access to a target’s sensitive accounts like bank accounts and PayPal.
Fraud is one of the most common dangers of catfishing. Professional gangs use romance scams to trick vulnerable targets like the elderly or emotionally vulnerable people into sending them money for fake emergencies, loans, gifts, or plane tickets.
Catfishing can have a damaging psychological impact on a victim. The feeling of betrayal, humiliation, and helplessness can lead to anxiety, stress, and other mental health issues.
How to protect yourself from catfishing: step by step
Step 1: Know the signs
The golden rule of how to spot a scam is: If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. If you feel like the person you're talking to is being dishonest or manipulative, pay heed to the warning signs in order to avoid being catfished.
While some people have good reasons to stay guarded, others are out to deceive. If you're suspicious, ask the person to video chat with you. If they refuse or make excuses, they may have something to hide.
You should also be aware of love bombing (a type of emotional abuse where someone uses grand gestures for manupulation) and mirroring (a nonverbal technique where a person copies the body language, vocal qualities, or attitude of another person). Catfishers may use these abuse tactics to control their victims.
Another red flag in online dating is when someone asks for money. Catfishers often use sob stories to gain sympathy and money. They might say they need money for medical bills, travel expenses, or other emergencies.
While it’s important to know the signs, it’s also important to educate others. Educate people in your family, including the elderly and children, about catfishing. Please also teach your kids about social media best practices so they can stay away from predators.
Online predators can use all types of tactics and can also be very resourceful. For example, one software engineer catfished young girls and used hacked webcams to spy on them.
A catfisher may use your confidential information to steal your identity or commit fraud. So, please be cautious about sharing your date of birth, address, phone number, or other sensitive information.
Step 3: Reverse image search
Catfishers often use photos from other people's social media profiles for fake accounts. One way to detect such catfishers is to use reverse image search. With this tool, you may be able to find the source of the image for more information. For example, you may learn that the image belongs to a completely different person. Or you may learn that the image was taken at a time or location that doesn’t match the catfisher’s story.
When someone creates a fake profile, they use fake information too. To verify their profile is real, look for inconsistencies in their posts, such as conflicting information about their location or job.
Ask questions about their background and check their information on the Internet to see if it matches. While some people like to minimize their digital footprint to keep a low profile, you can usually find something about everyone online. However, catfishers usually have little to no authentic information on the Internet.
Professional catfishers may use stalking tools like Trojans, spyware, stalkerware, or keyloggers to invade your security and privacy. Avoid opening attachments and links, or downloading software from places you don’t trust. Activate the SafeSearch filter to protect young people who use your computer. Shield your computer and devices with cybersecurity software.
Make sure you use a different password for every online account you have, enable multi-factor authentication, and use secure browsing practices – such as use a VPN to mitigate the risk of unauthorized access to your personal information. Tweak your online privacy and social media settings to prevent bad actors from breaching your security.
Catfishing or catphishing means the same thing but the spelling with an "f" is more common. It is a type of online scam where someone creates a fake persona to attract potential victims.
- Your online conversations get personal quickly and this new contact wants to know your personal information
- You can't find many references about this person online
- You get asked for money
- Your contact doesn't want to meet in person
- Your contact changes his / her stories
- You begin suspecting that things don't add up