In December of 2012, popular culture was rocked by an odd hoax. Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, who had lost his girlfriend to leukemia just months before, revealed that she never actually existed–except, it wasn’t him who made her up. Te’o had, without knowing it, been carrying on a virtual relationship with an online predator. This person corresponded with Te’o for three years, and even sent him pictures, pretending to be a woman named Lennay Kekua–and when the plot eventually broke open, Te’o was left confused and betrayed. He had been the victim of a catfish.
What does “catfished” mean? It’s defined as “[deceiving] (someone) by creating a false personal profile online,” and it almost always occurs in the context of online dating. It’s a meticulously planned, sophisticated and highly effective form of gaining someone’s trust and using it for personal gain. Te’o’s story is infamous, but it’s just one incident among many: a 2018 survey revealed that 28% of female respondents and 43% of male respondents had been catfished. Some of these victims have even given money to the person catfishing them. At the very least, they gave up time and emotional effort in a “relationship” that didn’t really exist.
How to Spot Catfishing
Many of the methods we use to detect phishing messages hold true for catfishing as well. A catfish is almost always too good to be true. Scammers use perfect profile pictures and tell their victims exactly what they want to hear. This increases interest from the victim and allows for the catfish to gain greater hold–just like an impressive offer or flashy graphics in a phishing email. Second, a catfish positions itself carefully to avoid being found out–as one article notes, the scammer might experience a lot of “technical difficulties” to avoid a video chat, or they might claim to live or work in a different country, making meeting up in-person impossible. According to Teen Vogue, social media accounts set up to catfish someone will likely also have suspiciously few friends or followers.
How Can We Protect Ourselves from Catfishing?
It’s important to recognize the inherent dangers of any social media platform when it comes to spoofing and fake accounts. Virtual communication has its benefits, but it also allows for a level of nefarious activity and dishonesty that might not happen in person. Although it might seem unlikely that a scammer would target you, you can never assume that the person friending or messaging you on social media is who they say they are.
Use these platforms with caution. Look out for the signs of catfishing, and maintain certain standards for who you communicate with and what information you provide. Keep your emotions under control, since a scammer trying to catfish someone uses romantic scenarios to lure victims into lowering their guard. Don’t allow yourself to get so emotionally involved that you’re no longer paying attention to the warning signs and know the signs in a catfish definition. After all–there’s nothing less romantic than an internet scammer using lies and tropes to gain your affection or access to your wallet.
When in doubt, let your anti-phishing training be your guide as you avoid threats like catfishing. If you’re not certain, then don’t engage. Independently verify. Ask someone you trust if what you’re doing is safe or reasonable. More than anything, never, ever release personal information or give someone money, no matter how genuine they seem.
If you believe you might be the victim of a catfish, stop communication immediately and notify the authorities.