What is Catfishing?

Words by
Jake Cutler

JUN 28, 2023

What is Catfishing?

Catfishing is when people create fake profiles on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram in order to hide their true identity and trick others into forming a relationship based on the fake identity. 

A few high-profile stories (and subsequent TV series) have made the term catfishing relatively well-known by now, but it was originally coined by Nev Schulman in his documentary by that name in 2010.

Schulman himself was a victim of catfishing (he was tricked into a romantic relationship with a married woman) and near the end of the film a comparison is made between his situation and the way catfish had historically been used when shipping large vats of cod over long distances—the catfish would be added to the tanks because they nip at the cod, keeping the cod active on the long journey, which preserved their taste.

So what is a catfish? The analogy was meant to convey that there are people out there constantly nipping at us and that the existence of online “catfish” should keep the rest of us on our toes. 

Over a decade later, the term has stuck. And the practice called catfishing, unfortunately, has only gotten worse.

The Threat of Catfishing

Catfishing can create significant emotional trauma, as well as lead to other serious online dangers like fraud and various forms of sextortion, such as revenge porn. The Federal Trade Commission cites $547 million in reported losses to romance scams in 2021 alone.

According to Facebook, around two billion fake social media accounts are removed from their platform every three months. It’s such a big problem that the company has “35,000 people working on these challenges.”

While it’s nice to hear that social media platforms themselves are taking action to reduce the threat, understanding the basics of catfishing and how to spot red flags has become a crucial online skill.

As a parent, it’s especially important to know about catfishing. If you are personally targeted, the negative effects could impact your children. And kids themselves are not only potential targets, but particularly easy ones.

If you worry your child isn’t mature enough to recognize the signs and respond appropriately, consider keeping them offline. If they still need a device for connecting with friends and family then look into safe devices without internet or social media.

If they are mature enough, take the time to teach them about catfishing and how to spot the red flags.

keyboard with a mask resting on it

Spotting the signs of a fake profile

There are several ways to tell whether a profile is fake or not. Start with the profile picture. If the photo looks too good to be true, then chances are it probably isn’t real. 

Fake profiles often use stolen images, usually ones that are public domain or stock images instead of personal pictures. You can check if an image is stolen by using Google image search or other similar tools. 

Beyond the photo, if anything about someone’s profile seems unusual or suspicious, trust your instincts and take steps to protect yourself from becoming the victim of a catfish.

Here are additional signs of a fake profile to look out for:

Lack of social media presence

An absence of other friends, followers, or connections on social media platforms and incomplete or inconsistent profile information is a potential concern. A real profile usually has a history of posts and interactions with other people, indicating that the person behind it is genuine and active on social media.

Minimal content, such as only a few posts or a limited amount of information might indicate that the profile was recently created and the person behind it is still trying to establish credibility. 

It’s possible you just met someone who is new to social media and also happens to be confident on the platform and adept at building online relationships. But that’s not very likely.

You should also be aware that it is possible that a catfish has taken the time to build up a social media presence. So while a lack of presence is a red flag, the existence of one isn’t confirmation that the account can be trusted.

Activity at weird times

An unusual amount of activity during non-regular hours could be a sign that they’re operating from a time zone or country that doesn’t match their profile details. Just because someone lives in a different place doesn’t make them suspicious, of course. But if it appears they live in a different place than their profile claims they do, that is suspicious.

Inconsistent stories

If the person’s story changes or they don’t provide enough details to back it up, this could be a sign that they’re not who they say they are. Pay attention to the way they talk too—if their language is unnatural or noticeably different from what you’d expect someone of their age or background to use, then there may be something fishy going on.

Refusal to do face-to-face communication

Another warning sign is if the person refuses a video call or any other type of face-to-face communication.

Moving a text-only relationship toward live video interaction comes with its very own set of dangers, especially for kids, so be careful. But if everything else about an online connection seems legitimate but they keep making excuses as to why video chat is not possible, it might be that they are deliberately avoiding being seen in real life.

Requests for money or personal information

This is a huge red flag and should always be treated with caution. If the person you’re talking to asks for your bank details or tries to get you to send them money, this is a sign that they are not who they claim to be.

Never give out any sensitive information via social media.

teen boy talking to his mother while looking at cellphone

What to do if you suspect a catfish

It’s best to catch it early so don’t doubt your instincts. The first step is to ask for the opinion of someone you trust. If your child has access to the internet then be sure they know the signs and understand that coming to you is the first step if they see red flags.

One of the things that makes catfishing so dangerous is that these people are experts at building trust and affection. That false trust and affection can make it hard to see warning signs so getting the opinion of someone who is detached from the relationship helps a lot.

If you or your child is communicating with someone online and anything about the situation feels suspicious, take the time to investigate it further.

You might start by searching for their username or handle on other social media sites to see if they have profiles there.

Most people on social media use multiple platforms (the average person has accounts on 8.5 platforms) so it could be telling if they have a full presence on one site but don’t exist at all on any others.

Remember, however, that just because someone has a good social media presence doesn’t make them trustworthy. But it takes a lot of time to build a convincing presence on one platform so doing it on multiple is even more time consuming. 

You can also look up the user’s name on Google and see if anything pops up. Often you can find basic public information that tells you if someone is a real person or not.

If any doubt remains, err on the side of caution and discontinue the relationship.

What to do if you or your child has been catfished

In the event that you or your child missed the warning signs and has fallen victim to a catfish, moving quickly to repair the damage and prevent additional harm is important. 

If you or your child has already sent the catfish money or something valuable (like a gift card), contact the company or your bank right away to report the scam and request a refund. You should also report the suspicious profile to the social networking site and can even report scams to the FTC.

Taking screenshots of key interactions can be helpful for reporting but, apart from that, you should move quickly to cut all connections with the catfish. Block them on any social media platform where you have connected.

Staying safe online is a group effort

Do you have more questions about catfishing or keeping your child safe online? Or stories that might be helpful for others to hear? 

Gabb is dedicated to safe connection for families and there is strength in numbers so please share with us in the comments!

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