Catfishing — creating a false identity and pretending to be someone else while online dating — became a household word after the 2010 documentary Catfish (which chronicles two brothers as they develop a relationship with a woman online who is lying about her identity) and an MTV reality show of the same name. Unfortunately, for many people seeking love in cyberspace, the phenomenon has become a fact of life with the growth of online dating sites like Tinder.
For some people, getting catfished can be a temporary nuisance and waste of time. But for others, it can have more serious consequences, particularly if it involves a money scam or triggers depression, anxiety and intimacy problems.
Falling for a Catfish
Nancy Crowd, CEO at Silent Crowd LLC, uses Tinder to find dates. Recently, her swipe right on a handsome man’s profile turned into a less fulfilling connection than she’d hoped. After several days of chatting, the pair decided to meet. “I’m waiting at the bar and this chubby, musty, crusty-looking man comes up to me and was like, ‘Nancy?’ and I replied with a hesitant, ‘Yes,’” she recalled. “He then told me who he was, and I started laughing uncontrollably because I thought I was being pranked.”
Her date had used old photos in his profile. While lying about a detail like age may not seem to be such a sinister trick, when someone essentially creates a new persona, it can be a significant deception. “I kept it cool and said that I was faded,” Crowd said. After one drink, she went home and blocked his account, bothered more by his fraudulence than his appearance.
Pulling a disappearing act can also be a warning sign. When Kate K. began interacting with “Lucas,” whose ad described a “down-to-earth guy with a big heart and a bigger sense of humor,” he seemed normal. They began texting and planned to meet that week, which Kate deemed good signs. But before long, red flags sprung up like weeds.
“The day before our date, he texted me and said he was so sorry, but he had to go out of town on an emergency business trip,” she said. He’d claimed to be an oil rig engineer, which Kate would later learn is a classic catfish move — lying about having a job that requires you to be traveling constantly.
One day during his supposed trip to Qatar, Lucas told Kate he’d just returned from the hospital after a frightening accident. While diving into the sea to help a fallen subcontractor, he’d lost his wallet. Days later, he said insurance would cover his hospital care, but not the subcontractor’s. “Right then and there, I wanted to vomit because I knew it was all fake,” she said, realizing it was just a scam for money.
The Other Side: Being a Catfish
People who catfish aren't always after money. In writer Erin Passons' case, she went after a lost love by creating a new persona online.
“A man that I had been having an affair with suddenly up and stopped talking to me,” she told LIVESTRONG.COM. “I created a Facebook account in the beginning just to keep tabs on him, which sounds really creepy … but I loved him so much and I missed him.” Amid a troubled marriage, Passons kept recalling their shared times, the only thing she’d felt made her happy. Eventually, the man private-messaged her fake account, and a new relationship with Passons’ imagined persona was born.
The relationship didn’t merely stay virtual. “We spent hours talking online [and] over the phone,” Passons said, noting that she faked a British accent to disguise her voice. “We traded jokes, stories, pictures, little daily tidbits about our lives.” Over time, she said, they both believed themselves to be in love, but when he became aggressive about meeting in person, she broke it off.
Passons wasn’t immune to the complexities of deceiving someone. “I was a nervous wreck all the time,” she said. “I had to make up lie after lie to hold him at bay. I lost my self-confidence... Even thinking about it now makes my heart tremble with panic.” Passons went on to write about her catfishing exploits in her memoir, This Sick Little Heart of Mine.
People may catfish others for a broad variety of reasons, according to Ben Michaelis, a clinical psychologist and creator of OneMinuteDiagnosis.com, and none are positive. “People have been known to catfish out of revenge, curiosity, loneliness or simply just because they like manipulating other people,” he said. Others are fueled by insecurity, the likely case with Crowd’s date, feeling less datable as one’s authentic self. Others are prompted by heartbreak, as Passons was.
While Passons doesn’t wish the kind of deception she brought about on anyone, the experience taught her quite a bit. “The spiritually approved Oprah answer would be to tell you that it made me grow as a person and that I learned how wrong and terrible it was to deceive someone in that nature. And I feel that, I really do,” she said, adding that the lessons ran far deeper. “It was, in an odd way, a study in the ways we invent and reinvent ourselves to placate our never-ending need to be validated and loved. How far will you go? How much of yourself are you willing to change?”
Like many catfishers, Passons also learned firsthand the devastation this type of deception can bring. “The social, emotional, physical and psychological damage [of being catfished] can be tremendous,” said marriage and family therapist O’Connor. “It can make someone go from strong, confident and assertive to having a crisis when learning the truth. It can trigger enormous loss, abandonment or intimacy issues, making it difficult to attempt connecting in the future for fear it will happen again.”
Spotting a Catfish
Here are a few simple steps that can help keep a catfish from luring you in.
Do your research: Wendy O’Connor, a licensed marriage and family therapist, suggests becoming your own investigator. “Google the person, [and] try to find people who know them,” she said. “Include a friend in the conversation. If your friends give you feedback, stay open to it.” If the facts don’t line up or your gut says something’s off, listen to it, she added. “Move on. Don’t waste your precious time.”
Don't ignore red flags: Since stepping away from her fake persona, Passons has spoken up about ways to prevent being victimized online. Red flags she suggests looking out for include new accounts with very few photos, Facebook photos in which others aren’t tagged and connections to other fake accounts the person may have created to seem more valid.
Kate first grew suspicious when supposedly Scottish Lucas spoke without a Scottish accent. Her gut sounded again when in a photo she’d requested of him working, he was only partially visible and dressed for warmth. “I said, ‘That’s weird, it looks so cold. It should be 100 [degrees] in Qatar right now,’” she said. “Again, I ignored this.”
Ask for a face-to-face meeting ASAP. Now before meeting a potential date, Crowd asks to connect through Snapchat or FaceTime “to make sure they are who they claim to be.” Crowd also feels it’s important for anyone in a similar situation to know that catfish haven’t earned your kindness. “You don’t have to be nice to a fraud!” she said. “You can leave immediately.”
Remember, that if someone seems too good to be true, they probably are: “The catfish is uncommonly beautiful,” Passons said. “No one creates an ugly catfish account.”
What to Do If You Are Catfished
If you suspect you've been a victim of catfishing, there are several things you can do:
- Change your online passwords immediately to prevent hacking.
- Report fake accounts and scammy behavior. Do so on Facebook here and Twitter here.
- If you were catfished on a dating site, use the "report" function on the catfish's profile to give them a heads up.
- Keep messages or screenshots of all communication in case you end up needing it as evidence.
- Don't give the catfish money. If you already have, don't end contact immediately, call the police first so they can file a report.
- You can also file a report with the Internet Crime Complaint Center.
- Forgive yourself for being human and falling for a catfish, but try to learn from the experience. Talk to friends, family, or your doctor if you think the experience is having negative psychological affects.