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What Is 'Catfishing'?

The virtual world has some shady characters. Have you ever received an email from a Nigerian official offering you millions of dollars? Perhaps a friend you haven’t heard from in years randomly emailed you with a strange link? Maybe you ordered an item at an auction site and it never arrived?

We encounter online frauds and scams all the time, and they’ve become a ubiquitous part of our Internet culture. So what is ‘catfishing’? It’s a particular type of scam that’s recently made headlines.

What Is ‘Catfishing’?

“Catfishing’ refers to a scam where someone, the ‘catfish,’ creates a fictitious online identity and seeks out online relationships. These are frequently romantic relationships, and online dating websites and cell phone dating apps are fertile hunting ground for catfish. However, there are also catfish who seek out friendships and other forms of social contact.

Catfishing involves significant deception – it’s not just someone fudging his or her height and weight in a profile and using a three-year-old photo. A catfish will be far more deceptive. Often, he or she will use someone else’s photos; grab personal details such as work, educational history, and personal histories off of the Internet; and invent an entirely fictitious life for his or her fictitious identity.

The growing popularity of online dating has made catfishing more and more common. Estimates for catfishing victims are in the thousands, and that number is probably under representative. Catfishing victims can be deeply embarrassed and many don’t talk share or talk about it.

What Do ‘Catfish’ Want?

There’s not necessarily a catch to catfishing. A catfish is often just someone pretending to be someone they’re not using the anonymity of the Internet. He or she might may have low self-esteem and build a fictitious online persona to interact with people. Or a catfish might simply find their deception amusing.

More malicious motives can exist as well. Some catfish seek money, and build a fake relationship with their victims to get it. Others seek to prey on their victims’ sympathies and emotions, often relating tragic family events or personal circumstances. Catfish have also been known to seek revenge on a former significant other, prank a friend or acquaintance, or simply seek to amuse themselves at the expense of other people.

‘Catfishing’ in Popular Culture

‘Catfishing’ has been prominently featured in popular culture. The term itself comes from Catfish, a 2010 movie that featured a man meeting a woman online before growing concerned about her true identity. The movie led to a spin-off, Catfish: The TV Show, on MTV.

Probably the most widely known catfishing case involved Manti Te’o, a University of Notre Dame football star. His girlfriend supposedly died of leukemia mid-season, leading to heart-warming tributes and media attention. Only later was it determined that his supposed, online girlfriend never existed. Her entire identity was faked.

How Can I Recognize ‘Catfishing’ Online?

‘Catfishing’ boils down to someone maintaining a fake online profile. You can find tips for recognizing catfish on dating websites and advice columns across the Internet, but here are some common signs:

  • They’re too good to be true - This may be the earliest warning sign. Catfish generally create fake online identities to seem more attractive than they really are. It’s not uncommon for them to pretend to be a model, actor, or part of another glamorous profession. Claiming to be a model or an actor can also give them access to photo libraries online, aiding in the deception.
  • Their profile is new or incomplete - Catfish have to keep details of an assumed identity straight. Limiting the number of photos and personal information in a profile helps them maintain the façade.
  • They move quickly - Catfish may quickly move a relationship along in order to manipulate their victims. Be cautious if someone becomes very close very quickly.
  • They won’t meet you - This is the classic warning sign. The game is up when a fake online identity or profile is revealed. Because of this, a catfish will often avoid meeting you. Inventing stories about work emergencies, personal problems, or sick friends and relatives are common tactics for getting out of a face-to-face meeting.

What to Do

You can uncover a suspected catfish fairly easily. Photos in a profile must come from somewhere – a Google Images search can turn up the true source. Contacting a suspected catfish’s friends, connections, and acquaintances on a social networking site can quickly unravel a fake profile. Finally, victims have a trump card: demand a meeting. This might chase a catfish off entirely, but it will resolve the issue.

If money is involved or serious problems arise related to catfishing, we recommend contacting a consumer protection lawyer for advice and assistance.

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Contact a qualified consumer attorney to assist with the hazards and stress accompanying identity theft and online scams.

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