With the rise of social media and dating on the internet over the last decade, catfishing has become more common than ever. In 2020 alone, over 23,000 US citizens reported being a victim of catfishing. Moreover, the economic damage caused by catfishing is devastating. The 23,000 victims reported a total damage of more than $605 million dollars.
The definition of catfishing
The term catfishing refers to when a person takes information and images, typically from other people, and uses them to create a new false identity. In some cases, a catfisher steals another person's complete identity - including date of birth, job and geographic location - and pretends to be that person through a fake profile with fake profile pictures. The person then uses this identity to trick other people into forming romantic relationships, stealing personal information or stealing money from them.
There is so much information about people's private lives online today that it is not difficult to create fake identities and it is now much harder to detect deception.
Catfishing has long been common in online dating forums and on dating websites, where the dating profile is paramount to meeting new people or partners.
Why is it called "catfishing"?
Some believe the term originates from the popular 2010 documentary "Catfish", which is about a young man who is deceived by a woman with a fake Facebook profile. However, the documentary merely popularised the term - it did not invent it.
The term originated in the early 1900s, when anglers used to transport catfish along with cod. Since catfish are the natural enemy of cod, the catfish chased the cod around constantly, keeping them fresh and active. Since digital "catfish" also hunt their victims, the term was also used to describe them.
Why do people catfish?
There are many different reasons why people catfish. Some people do it because they feel lonely or undervalued in a society that doesn't find them attractive. Their goal is often simply to create an online persona to attract people they feel would not be interested in them in the real world.
Some seek friendship or a close relationship that they feel they can trust.
Some do it to harass or stalk their victims.
Finally, there is the financial motive. Many catfishers end up cheating their victims out of money. They will often make excuses to ask for financial help. They may tell the victim that they need money to visit them. Or maybe a family member is sick and they need some money to cover medical expenses.
What social media is catfishing on?
Catfishing mainly takes place on social media platforms and online dating sites or apps. Below are some of the most common places where catfishing takes place.
Fake profile pictures on Tinder
Tinder is one of the largest online dating platforms and by far the largest in the US. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Tinder catfishing is one of the most common forms of catfishing.
Once a catfish has "matched with their victim", they will send them a message and try to gain their trust and then deceive them.
Fake profiles on Facebook
With around 86 million fake Facebook accounts and Facebook being the largest social media in the world, it is hardly surprising that there is so much catfishing on Facebook.
Many of us have probably received a suspicious friend request at one time or another. If that happens, delete them. According to the Better Business Bureau, 85% of catfishing scams start on Facebook. The launch of Facebook Dating (in 2019) has likely increased that percentage.
Facebook catfishing generally starts with a friend request to the victim. Sometimes the catfisher sends a direct message in the hopes that the victim will respond. Once the victim has responded, the perpetrator will tell a false story.
Fake profile on Instagram
With a platform as visually oriented as Instagram and more than a billion users, Instagram catfishing can hardly be avoided entirely. Catfishers can send their victim either a follow request or a direct message using Instagram Direct. The latter appears as a message request and must be approved by the recipient.
Instagram is no stranger to profiles that (apparently) belong to the rich, successful and beautiful. Therefore, anyone can get in touch with someone who appears to be the woman or man of their dreams.
7 signs you're being catfished
Catfishers are generally excellent at tricking their victims. They rely on feelings of affection, trust and infatuation to impair their victims' judgment. Nevertheless, there is usually aa few clear warning signs that you're being ripped off.
1. Avoid (video) calls
Catfishers want to avoid situations where their victims can gain insight into the real person behind the catfishing. Therefore, they will never agree to a video chat or to meet in person. Often they will not even accept a normal phone call (without video). After all, even their voice may reveal information they don't want you to know, such as that they are in fact a man instead of a woman. Therefore, if someone you've met online constantly has excuses for not meeting or making a video call, be aware.
2. No online presence (on other platforms)
Much of our presence is online these days. Therefore, you can expect someone who is active on one social platform to also be active on others.
Ask yourself: Why doesn't the successful businessperson you just met on Facebook have a LinkedIn page to promote his or her business or even to look for new partnerships and connections? Why doesn't the beautiful fitness model have examples of her work on Instagram or her Facebook page?
3. Very few friends or followers
When someone who approaches you online has very few friends on Facebook or followers on Instagram, this can be a sign of catfishing. Most people use social media to communicate and keep in touch with people online
Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean you're dealing with a catfisher. If a profile does not have this following, it may be because they are new to the platform or simply prefer not to have too many contacts. It may also be a sign that keeping in touch with family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances is not the primary goal of their social media use. Nevertheless, you should be very careful when a profile has very few friends or followers.
4. A very recently created profile
If a social media profile was created very recently, this can be a bad sign. This is especially something to look out for if a profile has a large number of friends or followers.
A recently created profile can also really just mean that someone is really new to social media. But it can also mean that a catfisher has created fake profiles to find new victims.
5. Stolen images
If someone is using stolen profile pictures, it's very likely that they're out to scam you. After all, scamming people on social media is one of the most common reasons for creating a fake account.
Fortunately, it's often quite easy to find out if someone is using stolen photos on social media. You can simply use Google reverse image search to find similar images to the profile picture the (potential) catfisher is using and find out where they are coming from. To do this, simply go to Google Images and click on the small camera icon to upload an image or paste an image's URL and start your search.
6. Asking for money
This is one of the most obvious signs that you are dealing with a catfisher. After all, a common reason for scamming people is to make up excuses to ask them for money later. Ask yourself: How likely are you to ask someone you just met online for money, especially if you hope to have a relationship with them?
7. Asking for explicit pictures or videos
Asking for explicit photos or videos can be a big red flag. This could mean that the person is trying to combine catfishing with another dangerous form of cybercrime: sextortion. In this scenario, catfishing is actually used to get sensitive photos of you, which will later be used as blackmail to get you to send more photos, pay the "sextor" or to enter into an online relationship with the person.
About the author
Sofie Meyer is a copywriter and phishing aficionado here at Moxso. She has a master´s degree in Danish and a great interest in cybercrime, which resulted in a master thesis project on phishing.