One of the biggest fears people have when first considering online dating is the threat of being catfished — that they might fall victim to this common scam in which the perpetrator pretends to be someone they’re not, usually by creating fake profiles and using someone else’s pictures.
It’s become such a major concern that most top-rated dating apps have implemented photo verification processes to ensure that members represent themselves honestly. This is a well-documented phenomenon with humiliating and often heartbreaking consequences. It’s no wonder it’s one of the main concerns of newbies to online dating.
Fortunately, we now have much more experience with catfishing these days and know what signs to look out for. We also have better tools at our disposal to help combat these elaborate deceptions.
Catfishing is a social phenomenon in which a person pretends to be someone they’re not online. The perpetrators often create a fictional persona using other people’s photos and fake social media accounts to seduce or connect with their victims. Usually, catfishers find their prey on online dating platforms.
The intention is often to trick the unsuspecting victim into falling in love. Often the person being catfished is duped into buying expensive gifts or sending large sums of money to a “significant other” they’ve never actually met.
Origin of the Term “Catfish”
The term Catfish was popularized by a documentary of the same name, in which Nev Schulman – who also hosted the MTV series based on the film — was the subject. The movie told the story of his nine-month relationship with a woman who didn’t exist, and his subsequent search for answers, including the identity of the person behind the deception.
The documentary coined the term “catfish.” Here’s how they explain it in the movie:
“They used to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China. They’d keep them in vats in the ship. By the time the codfish reached China, the flesh was mush and tasteless. So, this guy came up with the idea that if you put these cods in these big vats, put some catfish in with them and the catfish will keep the cod agile.”
“And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank God for the catfish because we would be … boring and dull if we didn’t have somebody nipping at our fin.”
It’s a weird explanation, right? They make catfishing sound like a good thing, as if, dealing with such manipulations keeps us sharper somehow.
Whatever the case, it happens often enough to provide MTV with a full eight seasons worth of content for Catfish: The TV Show. That’s 205 individual episodes, each chronicling the journey of yet another dupe.
Every episode consists of Nev and his team of researchers helping the victim to uncover the real person behind the screen in their online romance. It resulted in some of the most awkward and hilarious moments ever caught on camera.
Check out some of the show’s greatest hits:
Now that we’re all up to speed, let’s look at some of the biggest red flags that you’re being catfished and how you can prevent falling into their traps.
The Relationship is Escalating Quickly
One of the first red flags to look for is a conversation that seems to be progressing at an abnormally fast speed. It may feel that this new person you’ve met is eager to advance your relationship to the next level as quickly as possible.
This often presents itself as confessions of love or attraction well before you’d expect to be having those conversations. When someone you met online is rushing to make intimate connections before you’ve even met in person, it’s one of the most obvious signs of catfishing.
Intense declarations of love or attraction feel good to the recipient, especially if that person is lonely and desperate for companionship. Their desire to experience a romantic relationship outweighs their common sense, which should be screaming that something isn’t right about the pace at which things are escalating.
It’s how catfishers lure victims into their trap: by selling them the fantasy of a whirlwind romance and getting them caught up in all the excitement with little time to step back and evaluate.
Early Sob Stories / Confessions of Trauma
This red flag ties into the previous bit of advice. Another way some catfishing you may attempt to create a connection quickly is by overwhelming you with stories of traumatic events from their past. It’s a way to appear vulnerable and trigger your compassion – that way, you might overlook or excuse away instances of strange behavior. It’s also how they lay the groundwork for asking you for money or other forms of assistance later.
Too Good to Be True
Listen, miracles do happen on occasion, and date someone who conventional wisdom says should be out of your league. Attraction is a funny thing, so what appears – on the surface – to be a physically disproportionate relationship might just be built upon a different set of priorities than looks.
Still, we all know where about in the social strata we land and the level of mates we can generally attract. If you’ve been a hard “4” your entire life, it’s highly unlikely that supermodels will all of a sudden start pursuing you aggressively online. Be realistic with yourself.
Think of the type of person who wants to catfish others. They’re living out a bizarre fantasy of their own, so they’re not going to choose to be a typical mediocre person. They steal pictures from people whose lives they’d like to live, which are almost always ridiculously attractive.
They Find Excuses Not to Video Chat or Talk on the Phone
Most online dating apps include features that allow you to video chat with your matches, so you can verify their identity before agreeing to meet in person. It’s harder—but not impossible – to hide behind stolen pictures and fake social media accounts when you can communicate live and on video.
These days, anyone capable of setting up a dating profile online also has access to some form of video chat, whether it’s FaceTime, Zoom, Google Hangout, or something else. If they repeatedly make excuses for why they can’t communicate via video chat, it’s probably because they’re hiding something. Especially if they always have time for texting.
The same may also apply to speaking on the phone. If the catfisher isn’t the same gender as the person they’re portraying, they won’t be able to expose their true voice. However, they may bring other people in on the scam if necessary. Look no further than the Manti Te’o case, where multiple people were catfishing the Notre Dame football star. He was mostly texting with a guy whose female friend would handle phone conversations.
That’s why it’s always important to push for a video conference or a face-to-face meeting before allowing the relationship to develop too far.
Something Always Prevents You from Meeting
The same goes for anyone who always has an excuse for not meeting you in person. Usually, a scammer’s fake persona has a “job” that constantly forces them to travel around the world. Due to these demands, they’re always available via text or online but are never in your city long enough for you to see each other.
Of course, there’s always some date in the very near future when they’ll be free, at which point you can be together. They keep that hope dangling in front of you to keep you invested. But as that date draws closer, something always happens to prevent you from meeting. Over time, the last-minute excuses get more severe. Often, the fake persona ends up in the hospital or some form of crisis.
Just think about it: wouldn’t someone so eager to start an online relationship apply that same level of enthusiasm towards meeting in person? Wouldn’t they do anything to make that connection happen?
Fishy Social Media Presence
Another excellent place to search for red flags is on social media. Most catfishers create social media accounts for their alter egos. Some people go as far as to create accounts for multiple friends and family members and have them all interact to create the appearance of authenticity. Usually, one of the connected profiles will belong to the actual person committing the catfish.
Give their social media activity a close look.
- Do they have the number of friends or followers you’d expect (especially if they’re using pictures of someone extremely attractive)?
- Do all their interactions occur with the same small handful of people?
- Do they have pictures with friends whom they’ve tagged?
- Does their social media activity seem normal? For example, are there casual jokes between friends and references to real-life events?
Observed with a discerning eye, social media activity can be a clear giveaway that you’re being catfished.
They Need Money (or Gifts)
The worst catfish offenders are out to scam their victims out of money and other valuables. They usually set you up for future solicitations early on in your courtship with many tales of poverty and trauma. But any attempt to create a swift emotional connection might be a setup for financial swindles down the line.
As a general rule, don’t send money or gifts of any kind to someone you’ve never met. It doesn’t matter what reason they give for needing your assistance. Anytime you’re asked to send cash to strangers online, it’s always a scam!
A major part of combating catfishing is being alert to strangeness and inconsistencies and using your intuition to prevent falling into any traps. Over time, you may notice gaps in their stories, as they get comfortable and struggle to keep up with all their lies. Pay attention to the details they share; that’s what will give them away eventually.
Maybe you’ll just notice that something is “off.” You might not have a precise explanation for suspecting you’re being catfished, but your subconscious mind has picked up on something and is ringing the alarm. It could be that their collection of behaviors, excuses, and stories don’t fit well together.
It’s okay to have your guard up when dating online. Everyone should. So, any genuine person you’re talking to won’t be offended by any questions you may have if you’ve noticed inconsistencies. If anything is making you feel weird, say something!
Ways to Avoid Being Catfished
Now that we’ve covered the major signs that you’re being catfished, let’s talk about what you can do to prevent it from happening.
Reverse Image Search
Perhaps the most powerful anti-catfishing tool at our disposal is Google’s reverse image search. Just upload the pictures sent to you by the suspected catfish and this tool will find where else it’s been posted on the internet. If the results discover that they belong to a different person (probably posted to their social media), you know you’re being catfished!
Get a Second or Third Opinion
Being catfished can be embarrassing, so victims often keep their concerns to themselves rather than getting help from friends or family. Don’t suffer in silence and wait until you’re already invested in a potentially fraudulent relationship before doing something.
Show the conversations you’ve been having with this online person to one or two close confidants and ask if they find anything to be fishy. They’re not as close to the situation and will have an easier time considering the evidence objectively.
Ask for Something Specific and Current
I remember a girl who was trying to catfish me about a decade ago when I lived in Reno. She would send the occasional photo but it never seemed like they had just been taken. So, I asked for a selfie of what she was doing right now. She sends back a picture of this beautiful woman she was pretending to be sunbathing in the backyard. But this was in Reno, NV in November. It was way too cold for sunbathing in the backyard!
Ask for some kind of verification that proves they are who they claim. Maybe a selfie with your name written on a piece of paper. It can be anything specific to the moment or conversation; something unlikely to already exist in the library of pictures they’ve stolen from someone else’s social media.
Don’t Send Compromising Content
I’m against ever sending compromising photos of yourself over the internet, but I realize I’m a bit behind the times in that way. That said, if you’re going to have incriminating conversations or send private images of yourself through the phone or online, make sure you know the actual person first.
Do not share anything sensitive before you’ve met in person and trust them fully. It doesn’t matter what they send you; that’s probably someone else’s content anyway.
Sometimes catfishers will use embarrassing information or pictures against you once you’ve figured out their scam and try cutting them off. They might demand money, otherwise, they’ll post the incriminating evidence online, send it to friends and family, or forward it to someone at your place of work. People have been fired for things they sent or admitted to a catfish.
Don’t Take it Personally
To wrap things up, I’d just like to add that while being catfished is a humiliating violation of one’s trust, you shouldn’t take it personally. Yes, you’re the victim, but imagine what a person must be going through emotionally and psychologically to engage in such a pathetic and devious practice. This is someone pretending to be someone else just to feel loved and desired, even at the expense of a total stranger’s feelings.
While I was reading about the catfishing phenomenon, I found an excellent quote from a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist named Brooke Shwartz.
Accept the reality of the situation and move on. By having the courage to put yourself out there — the real you – you’ll eventually find genuine love. Meanwhile, the catfishes of the world will continue deceiving people for fleeting moments of connection built on lies.
Hardly a fulfilling existence.