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What Is Catfishing? Signs You’re a Victim and How To Avoid It

Don't become a victim.

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In 2012, MTV premiered a series called Catfish. It was a reality show wherein two friends exposed catfishers, examining the psychology behind the ruse and the implications for those they deceived. At the time, few people beyond the age of 20 knew what catfishing was. However, since the show’s premiere little more than 10 years ago, catfishing has become ubiquitous, proliferating across everything from dating apps and email scams, to real estate and insurance fraud. 

So, what is catfishing? In its simplest form, it’s a type of cyberbullying involving online impersonators swindling unsuspecting participants. People catfish for different reasons; some for financial gain, others due to lack of self-esteem. Typically, catfishing is either an email or social media scam.

Unfortunately, the scammers who catfish have gotten so good at it that discerning the truth from the impersonation can be very difficult, especially for those who are less tech savvy. Below is a list of warning signs to watch out for when you receive a suspicious phone call, email, or social media request. The signs of catfishing are subtle, so staying alert to their tactics is vital.

What is catfishing?

Catfish: The TV Show debuted in 2012. Hosted by Nev Schulman and Max Joseph, it was a follow-up to their popular movie, Catfish, whose title defined the growing phenomenon of deceptive impersonation on social media sites. Catfishing evolved from telemarketer scams of the past. But where the perpetrators of those frauds often used a fake identity, catfishing scammers assumed the identities of real people, and used them to create new (false) accounts on dating apps, social media accounts, and other social networking platforms.

The motivations for assuming these real-meets-false identities are many. The most obvious is monetary gain. Scammers target individuals with the goal of receiving money, jewelry, and other high-price items, often convincing the target that the two are in a romantic relationship. Over time, the scammer requests gifts of increasing value, and the target — unaware that the person with whom they are chatting is not the person on the other side of the screen — complies.

In some cases, the perpetrator actually knows the victim, and they are catfishing as a form of cyberbullying. This may involve humiliating the victim, getting close to them and learning their secrets, or hurting them by pretending to share feelings that aren’t truly reciprocated. Celebrities can be the victims of catfishing, and sometimes celebrity names are used by the perpetrators to evoke trust. 

Catfishing is a vicious and nasty process that can truly hurt its victims. The good news is that there are steps you can take to recognize signs of catfishing and to protect yourself and your family in the future.

What are the signs you’re a victim of catfishing?

The show brought awareness to both the problem and practices of catfishing. Here are a few of the signs to watch for that may indicate catfishing. 

They won’t video chat.

One clear indication that a person might be catfishing you is that they refuse to video chat. This is because they don’t look like the profile picture on their social media platforms, and they know that a face-to-face meeting would be the end of the relationship. In some circumstances, a catfish may even refuse audio calls, especially if the victim knows who they are. Either of these refusals should raise huge red flags.

They won’t make plans.

One lovely aspect of the internet is that it makes it easy to connect with people from all over the world. That said, you should pay close attention to how your online love interest responds to future plans. If they set concrete dates for a meeting and book airline tickets, they’re more likely to be real. If they’re evasive about meeting in person, their real and online identity may not match. This is especially true if you live relatively close to each other and they don’t seem interested in making the effort. 

Their pictures seem too good.

Take note of the pictures that potential online friends and romantic connections share. Firstly, look closely at the person. Many times, catfishes steal the identities of models and actors. If the person seems too good to be real, especially for a chance connection, they often are. Look, too, at how the pictures were shot. Are there candid pictures, selfies, and photos with friends (versus perfectly curated photos)? The latter may indicate that they were taken from someone else’s feed. If you’re curious, ask them to send a selfie of what they’re doing at that moment. If they hem and haw, you might just have your answer. 

Their profile looks new.

On many social media sites, you can see how long a person has been a member or if the profile was set up recently. Look at how many photos have been posted, what they started sharing and when, and how often they interact with other profiles or accounts. A brand new profile isn’t necessarily an indication of a catfish, but it’s smart to be wary of accounts that pop up overnight. 

They appear in a reverse image search.

One of the most effective practices used on the television program Catfish was a reverse image search. To do this search, download one of the photos they’re using to your computer. Next, upload it to Google Images. (Hit the small camera icon in the search bar to upload a photo from your computer.) If the profile photo that you uploaded appears in Google Images search results, that likely means it wasn’t taken or initially shared by the person you’re talking to. In most cases, they stole the photo from a model or influencer and used the person’s attractiveness to gain your trust. 

You find holes in their stories.

Many catfishers pretend they know someone with whom you’re distantly acquainted — someone from your hometown or a past job, for example. This is information they can easily get from your social media sites and use to get you to take your guard down. But pay attention to their references and passing comments. If you notice that they make false statements about a person they claim to know; slip when it comes to backstory, interests, or personal characteristics; or miss something obvious about the hometown, that could mean they’re not telling the truth. Any obvious continuity errors — or gaslighting — are good indications that you’re dealing with a catfish. 

They ask for money.

You never want to give out money over the internet. This is especially true when it comes to a person you just met online or even someone with whom you’ve been chatting for a while. Financial gain is one of the primary motivators for catfishes, and it’s caused unknowing victims to lose significant sums of cash. If you do give money online, make sure it goes through vetted channels, like a GoFundMe account. (Be aware that these are not immune to scammers either.) That said, any request for money or gifts should be an immediate red flag for a catfish assuming a false identity.

How can you avoid catfishing?

Taking steps to alert you that you’re a possible victim of catfishing is vital to recognizing the signs of romance scams and other catfishing scams. Here are a few effective tactics.

Set your accounts to private.

Most social media sites have varying degrees of privacy settings. If you’re worried about being a victim of catfishing, it’s smart to put the highest security settings in place. This will help to prevent unknown accounts from contacting you, thus reducing your risk of succumbing to a scam. 

Be skeptical.

Technology is advancing faster than our media literacy, which means that those of us who didn’t grow up online lack the digital communication savvy to properly vet social media profiles. The best way to get around this is to be skeptical. If an account reaches out requesting money or promising something that’s too good to be true, delete the message. Be careful, too, of accounts run by impossibly beautiful people. Very often, those photos are taken from models and actors. To speak plainly, if online relationships seem too good to be true, they probably aren’t true. 

Never share personal information

A quick online search can reveal shocking details about us — so don’t make learning your secrets even easier for catfish. When setting up your social media sites, avoid sharing your address, phone number, online bank account information, or anything that could make you the target of real-life harassment. Identity theft scams are increasingly common, and can be incredibly damaging to your finances. Keep things topical and vague in the early stages of an online relationship, and avoid proffering any information that can be used by a false identity as a claim to connection with you.

Do a reverse image search to find fake accounts.

The reverse image search really works and can help you spot a fake social media profile or online dating profile. It’s one of the best ways to find out if a person’s online persona is genuine or coopted. Execute a reverse image search early on, as it can help to validate profiles. But be aware: Just because an image doesn’t show up in a reverse image search, that doesn’t mean the person is who they say they are. Continue watching for signs of subterfuge or dishonesty to make sure you’re being safe online.

Ask them questions they should know the answers to.

In many cases, catfish will take the information shared on your public profiles or the info you casually drop and use it to try to get closer to you. Don’t be afraid to push them on this. If you’re worried they’re lying about knowing a mutual acquaintance, ask them about it. Pepper your conversation with specific questions, and avoid things they can look up in real time. Even if they don’t claim specific knowledge of a person or place, it’s a good idea to watch their conversations and details closely. If information changes, especially when it’s convenient for extracting gifts or enhancing trust, it could be because they’re making up their story as they go. 

Ask for video calls.

If someone is who they say they are, they won’t be afraid to get on a video chat. Of course, it’s natural to be skeptical in the beginning, so one or two rejections may not mean anything. But if you’ve been chatting for a long time and shared a lot of personal details and they still aren’t available for video chatting, take note. Catfish will claim their technology is faulty or they can’t figure out how to get their camera to work. Repeats of “poor technology” are often an indication of a catfish. 

Ask for selfies.

Since catfish take curated photos from other people’s feeds, ask them for a selfie of what they’re doing at the moment you’re interacting. If they hesitate or send a picture that doesn’t include their face, it’s likely because the person you’re chatting with isn’t the one in the online photos you see. If they do send a photo, look out for professional lighting or retouching. A spur-of-the-moment selfie that includes these is an obvious red flag.

Never ever send money — or let them through the door.

If you send money to a catfish, you can count that money as good as gone. Never send cash or gifts to someone online, unless you’re absolutely certain that they’re legitimate and that you’re going through the safest possible channels. More importantly, never, ever give out your financial accounts information. If you believe you’re talking to someone you know, like a family member, confirm their identity outside the internet, like with a phone call, before sharing any private information.

Close the Door on Catfishing

Catfishing is a scary practice, and it’s easier than it might seem to fall victim to these scammers. That’s why it’s important to know how to recognize the signs of catfishing and to take steps to protect yourself against future scammers. Common indications to look for include brand new accounts, reluctance to video or audio call, and stories that don’t seem to add up over time. Unwillingness to make concrete plans to meet in person is also an indication that they’re not who they say they are. To protect yourself, engage strong privacy settings on your accounts, vet and check online profiles, and reverse image search profile photos before responding to messages. Most importantly, don’t send money to or open anyone online.

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