What is Catfishing? Explanation & Ways to Avoid

What is Catfishing and How to Recognize & Avoid It?
Any online communications with strangers have a risk of your contact not being a person it says it is

Catfishing appears to be the new-old approach in online phishing. While having less direct threat to the user, it may sometimes create even bigger problems, and inflict emotional damage. But how does it work? And what catfishing is, after all? Let’s find out.

What is Catfishing?

In brief, catfishing is the creation of a false identity to lure a victim into an online relationship. However, besides catfishers, there are other types of imposters, scammers, and internet trolls using similar tactics. Although the meaning of their actions is the same, their motives are different. For example, trolls hide under the cloak of anonymity mainly to engage in cyberbullying, sow discord, and assert themselves at the expense of other Internet users. Scammers conceal their true nature to gain financial profit, about which we have a dedicated article. The primary purpose of catfishers is to create longer term relationships, the reasons for which we will talk about next.

While this problem has been exacerbated traditionally during the pandemic, it is nothing new. The first serious mentions date back to 2010 when Nev Schulman shed light on the topic in the documentary Catfish. This was followed by the reality show Catfish: The TV Show, indicating that this scam is thriving. Thus, the FBI noted a 22% increase in romantic relationship scam complaints between 2019 and 2020. Moreover, the FBI has officially warned that there are risks of encountering a romance scam or catfish. This is not surprising as social media’s gaining popularity gives a green light to potential scammers in terms of personal information and photos.

How Does Catfishing Work?

Generally, the term catfishing comes from the movie mentioned above, which tells how live cod were shipped to Asia from North America. Due to the fish’s inactivity in the tanks, only the softened flesh reached its destination. However, the fishermen found that putting the catfish in the cod tanks kept them active and thus ensured the quality of the catch. In addition, a character in the movie states that his wife acts like a catfish, making life interesting for those around her. The title of the movie and this tactic is based on this dialog, hence the term “to catfish”.

In fact, the reasons for such behavior of people are not a good life. Most often, such people are lonely in real life and have low self-esteem. Some catfishers may sometimes troll, retaliate, engage in cyberbullying, or extort money from the victim. Also, in some cases, these may be the first steps to kidnapping or physical abuse. Whatever the case, if catfishing is detected, we recommend that you stop such communication as soon as possible.

While catfishing is not illegal in general, its derivatives, such as stalking, extortion, intimidation, and other scams, are unlawful. Not all the catfishing cases lead to these illegal areas, but that does not make it more of a pleasant experience either.

Signs You’re Being Catfished

Identifying signs of catfishing paying attention to various clues that may hint at deceptive online behavior. For example, the individual’s social media presence, number of followers or friends, profile photos, etc. Unfortunately, proving catfishing can be pretty tricky. It will likely require you to expose your personal life to investigators. It also involves monitoring all your devices. Therefore, we recommend taking preventive measures: if you suspect that you are dealing with catfishers, we recommend that you document all communications, especially if you are sent photos or asked for money. It would also be advisable to consult with a trusted adult. Now, let’s move directly to the signs of catfishing.

Few followers or friends.

Catfishers create smurf social media accounts to create a sense of authenticity and reliability. They carefully craft their online identity to give the impression that they are real people with busy social lives and a wide circle of friends. A real person who is active on social media usually has a decent number of connections, including friends, family, coworkers, and even casual acquaintances. If a person is said to have an active online life, but has very few followers or friends on social media, this is a red flag, as it contradicts the idea of an active and engaged person. It is important to note that not all people with few followers on social media are catfishers. Some people may simply be less active on social media and have more engagement IRL.

An account with a small number of subscribers screenshot
An account with a small number of subscribers

They’re using someone else’s photos or haven’t changed profile photos in a long time (or ever).

Profile photos play a critical role in online interaction as a visual representation of a person’s personality. Catfishers have limited options for updating their profile photos for several reasons. First, they carefully craft their fictional image. Changing a photo means making edits to their image. Second, because these photos are someone else’s, and therefore stolen, catfisher simply may not have enough photos. If you suspect the person is using someone else’s photos, do a reverse google search on the photo. There is a good chance you will find the original source of the photo.

All photos are professional.

Ordinary people, on the other hand, tend to use more ordinary photos that capture themselves and their daily activities. Professional photos, such as headshots or business cards, can be a red flag. If the photos are all taken from the same angle or in the same lighting, it could be a sign that the photos were taken professionally and do not show the person they claim to be. This also applies to photos where the person is posing against exotic locations or expensive objects. These are signs of ostentation, hence the person is trying to look more spectacular than they really are. The flip side of this is the overuse of filters and effects. If the photo is over-edited or the face is covered with a sticker, most likely the person is trying to hide their appearance. That is not always the sign of catfishing, but should raise concern either way.

Page with professional photos only screenshot
Page with professional photos only

So, these were the basic outward signs that may indicate that you are dealing with catfishing. Next, we will break down the red flags directly when communicating as well as the behaviors that give catfishers away.

Their story doesn’t add up.

It may be if someone’s story seems too good to be true. Catfishers are often skillful manipulators who understand the human desire for connection and validation. They concoct elaborate stories, sometimes in real-time, capitalizing on our hopes and dreams. They paint a picture of a perfect life filled with success, love, and adventure. Often, these stories are too perfect, flawless, and in tune with our desires, making them all the more enticing. However, if you listen closely, you may notice inconsistencies and contradictions. Details may not match, timelines may not make sense, and experiences may seem too outlandish to be true. These inconsistencies are often subtle and easy to overlook. If something in the interlocutor’s story is unsatisfactory, you should pause and investigate further. Be bold, ask questions, ask for clarification, and look for inconsistencies.

Once again, all this may take place with a real person. Such signs should be reviewed in the overall context of the personality. Simply put, it is not a serious concern when it is the only sign, but in combination with others – no bueno.

Their life sounds too exciting.

In addition to the previous point, catfishers often make up identities that seem more exciting than their own lives. They do this to gain trust and admiration: by portraying themselves as successful, adventurous people, they build trust and make themselves more attractive to their victims. On the other hand, catfishers may use the images they invent to escape from their ordinary lives or to compensate for feelings of inferiority. Genuine connections are built on honesty and authenticity. When the person’s life is too good to be true, it means either your companion is not telling you something or is a storyteller (liar). Listening carefully to the person’s stories is essential, especially if they seem overly exaggerated or unrealistic.

Conversations get personal quickly.

Suppose you have just recently met someone online, and the person you are talking to immediately tries to get personal. This is not a good sign in every sense, both online and in real life, as it goes against the natural development of a real relationship. Catfishers create a false sense of intimacy by making their victims feel closer to them. In addition, by taking the conversation personally, catfishers can manipulate their victims’ emotions, making them more susceptible to their influence. Of course, malicious motives have never been eliminated. By eliciting personal details, catfishers can gather valuable information about their victims’ lives. They may use it for financial gain, other malicious activities and even other catfishing episodes.

One-side information sharing.

To begin with, let’s clarify that genuine relations involve the mutual sharing of personal information. People gradually share details of their lives, thoughts, and experiences as they get to know each other. However, catfishers may ask for some personal information while keeping quiet about their lives. This is also a red flag because in typical communication, both parties share personal details gradually, creating a balanced exchange of information. Of course, it can be the other way around; when it’s more important for a person to speak out and say what you would like to say, they don’t care. Though, that is a different topic we are not talking about today.

They’ve never sent you a casual selfie.

On-the-fly selfies showcase a person’s daily life, interests, and personality, giving a glimpse into their true nature. However, as previously stated, catfishers have limited photos; hence, they must keep track of which photos they can send and when. For example, if a person tells you that they have been to an event but have not sent any photos from that event, it is a reason to think twice. On the other hand, if a person sends an abstract photo where they are not in the frame, you can once again perform image search on Google. Chances are, it’s not his photo, but it was taken from the Internet.

Average catfishers responses screenshot
Average catfishers responses

You can’t find any trace of them online.

In the age of social media and the internet, it’s tough to be online without leaving a digital footprint. However, catfishers often create fake identities and personas, avoiding creating an authentic online presence that would leave a trace of their digital existence. If you have investigated, done a thorough search, and found no data or even the photo’s source, you are most likely dealing with a virtual. For example, it could have used https://thispersondoesnotexist.com to generate the photo.

This though is one more 50/50 sign, as there are enough people who do not share a whole lot about them online. Information security becomes a more widespread concern with time, and to be honest – these are not the worst practices to follow.

Avoiding Phone Calls.

Communicating by texting is very limiting because texting will not convey emotion. Obviously, a person who wants to communicate will be happy to talk on the phone. Yet if a person prefers texting but avoids talking on the phone, this becomes a red flag. Catfishers often avoid phone calls because they find it easier to manage their personality through text messages. Avoiding phone calls and asking to continue communicating only by texting is a clear sign that the person lurking behind the screen is not who they say they are.

They’re reluctant to meet in real life or video chat.

As mentioned above, the catfishers’ destiny is typing, nothing more. However, any prolonged communication sooner or later comes to video calls and sometimes leads to real-life meetings. This is not true for catfishers. Such people will find thousands of excuses to avoid a video call, spending half a day explaining the reason, but never agreeing to a video call or meeting. Thus, if you communicate with a person who avoids live communication in every possible way, preferring to communicate only by correspondence, it is a reason to think about ending communication with such a person. In such a case, it is the same as communicating with an AI chats, and they at least openly declare not being a person.

Make plans with you, but repeatedly cancel.

In some cases, catfishers may agree for a video/phone call or even a meeting. However, at some point, they backpedaled and canceled all plans under the guise of excuses. They will tell convincing excuses every time, but the result is the same – no meetings and calls, only correspondence. An important note: any meetings with strangers are important to organize in a crowded place on neutral territory.

Safety recommendations

Online dating is always a lottery, but knowing the signs of fraud is more accessible to avoid. Here are some recommendations for preventing problems when dating and communicating online.

  • Always be suspicious. Internet scammers are masters of their craft; if they wish, they will find a way to put your vigilance to sleep. However, the philosophy of zero trust and healthy skepticism will not allow them to do it so easily.
  • Take your time. Since catfishers often have some purpose, they prefer to skip the foreplay. It’s essential to resist this tendency and discourage attempts to “get right to the point.”
  • Keep in touch. Indeed, we have someone with whom we share our experiences and events. Let someone you trust know about your “new friend.” This can help you make informed decisions. Also, involving another person can serve as an early warning system.
  • Be careful about sending photos. Take your time to be the first to send photos to a stranger. Instead, offer to talk on a video chat to prove their personality. Catfishers usually communicate with several victims at once. Once the catfisher has your photos, he may send them to another victim. When it comes to intimate photos, catfishers can further use them to blackmail you.

By Stephanie Adlam

I write about how to make your Internet browsing comfortable and safe. The modern digital world is worth being a part of, and I want to show you how to do it properly.

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