What Is Catfishing

Men's Dating

What Is Catfishing?

Mackenzie Buck

Written by: Mackenzie Buck

Mackenzie Buck

Mackenzie Buck is an experienced writer who earned a master's degree with distinction from the University of Manchester. Her relationship advice has been featured on the New York Post, among other publications. She has worn a variety of hats in the digital marketing space over the years and is excited to bring her unique voice and storytelling chops to DatingAdvice.

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Edited by: Lillian Castro

Lillian Castro

Lillian Guevara-Castro brings more than 30 years of journalism experience to ensure DatingAdvice articles have been edited for overall clarity, accuracy, and reader engagement. She has worked at The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, The Gwinnett Daily News, and The Gainesville Sun covering lifestyle topics.

Reviewed by: Amber Brooks

Amber Brooks

Amber Brooks is a dating and relationship expert who has penned over 1,800 lifestyle articles in the last decade, and she still never tires of interviewing dating professionals and featuring actionable advice for singles. She has been quoted by the Washington Times, Cosmopolitan, The New York Post, and AskMen.

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Discuss This! Discuss This!

If you’re reading this, you’re either a single person new to the world of online dating… or a very confused fisherman. To those who fall under the latter: We encourage you to continue in your Google search. To those who fall under the former: We’ve got the answers you seek, and they’re wrapped in a tiny, little digital bow ready to be delivered.

What is a catfish? Where did the term come from? What should I know about catfishing? You’re about to find out. Let’s dive in (more fishing/water-related references to come). 

History of Catfishing | Warning Signs | Impact on Victims | Prevention Tips

The Story Behind the Catfish

According to our pals over at Merriam-Webster, catfishing can be defined as “a person who sets up a false personal profile on a social networking site for fraudulent or deceptive purposes.” 

This person can use any combination of fake pictures, information, and personas to reel (there’s another one) others into online interactions or relationships. Catfishing isn’t just limited to dating apps; it can be carried out on any online space, including social media, web forums, and more. 

It’s difficult to understand the full complexity of a catfish’s motivations and the rationale behind the havoc they wreak, but much of what we’ve seen is rooted in insecurity (both personal and financial), as well as attention-seeking and revenge-seeking behaviors. Regardless of their reasoning, catfish cannot be trusted. And as someone dipping their toes into the murky waters of the dating pool, it’ll be up to you to stay as vigilant and informed as possible so you don’t become a victim to their slow but deadly bite. Just ask Nēv Schulman…

Origin of the Term

I didn’t have to do much research for this part of the article because, like many others, I watched it unfold in real time back in the early 2010s (if watching it on MTV counts as real time, of course). During this era, Angry Birds was infiltrating smartphones all over the globe, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter were in full swing, and we hadn’t yet discovered just how diabolical the internet had the potential to be. That is, not until Nēv Schulman came along and released his documentary “Catfish” at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

A 2010 documentary revealed how devastating a catfishing romance can be for a single person.

The Academy-Award-nominated documentary showed Nēv, a 24-year-old budding photographer living in New York City, falling in love with a woman he’d met online — she called herself Megan. Megan (19) had gotten connected with Nēv through her half-sister, Abby — an 8-year-old artist who had recently been painting art pieces of Nēv’s photographs and sending them to him in the mail. Struck by Megan’s beauty and easygoing personality, Nēv quickly falls in love with her. Dozens of daily texts, regular (and sometimes erotic) phone calls, the whole shebang. 

Their online love affair lasts for several months, until things start to get a little suspect. There were some missing puzzle pieces to Megan’s story, and she was even caught in a couple of pretty big lies. Desperate for answers, Nēv (and the friends bearing witness to his side of the romance on camera) decide to confront Megan in person where she lives in Michigan. Long story short, their visit revealed some devastating news: Megan was not who she said she was. In fact, her name wasn’t named Megan at all. The person on the other side of all those late-night phone calls was a married woman named Angela Wesselman. 

Deemed a “manipulator” by her husband, Angela had used photos from a model named Aimee Gonzales to gain the love and affection of a younger man she thought may never have paid attention to her otherwise. She had weaved her sister Abby into her web of lies too. Abby disclosed during that very same Michigan visit that not only had she not painted the pictures of Nēv’s artwork but was not a painter at all. Once again, that was all Angela. 

The origin of the documentary title — which would soon become a part of modern dating jargon all over the world — came up during a conversation with Vince, Angela’s husband. He, perhaps in an attempt to explain away the behavior of his wife, told Nēv a story about fish.

In the story, Vince shares that fishermen used to drop catfish into shipping tanks with live cod to keep them active. Doing so would keep the cod active and mobile during the shipping process, ensuring optimal freshness of the meat. The catfish, Vince goes on to explain, is a metaphor for the people in our lives who keep us on high alert. They keep us on our toes, always ready for what may happen next. Angela, apparently, was such a person. Whether he meant for Nēv or for himself, we’ll never know. 

Motivations for Deceit

In the story of the original catfish, Angela’s motivations for creating her false internet persona can likely be tied back to personal insecurities or a need for validation and attention — but this isn’t always the case. In fact, there could be a dozen reasons why someone may dip their toes in the dark world of catfishing. 

Besides the yearning for attention from suitors, some people may see their false internet identity as a means of escape. You know, the whole idea of “Why be me when I could just be somebody else?”

Fake profiles undermine trust in the online dating world.

A catfish may also use their alternate reality as a medium for exploration (on many levels). For example, a man who is uncertain about his sexuality may pretend to be someone he’s not in order to venture into uncharted territory and get some much-needed answers. Or, on the other hand, someone who struggles with their authentic identity may find themselves looking for a “safe” space to test different personalities.

On a much darker side of the spectrum, people could create a false persona out of a desire to manipulate or get revenge on someone. The MTV show “Catfish” (named after its documentary namesake) shares many stories where people who feel they have been bullied or otherwise wronged create fake social media profiles to get back at those who have hurt them. 

Lastly, a catfish could find themselves in the deep waters of deceit for the purpose of financial gain. They’ll create fake profiles, fake personas, and fake stories about their lives in order to scam their victims out of money or valuable resources. Interested in seeing just how bad this kind of duping can get? Check out “The Tinder Swindler” on Netflix.

Case Studies and Real-Life Examples

The “Catfish” and “The Tinder Swindler” stories not cutting it for you? Don’t worry, there are plenty more horror stories to keep you on red alert. Here are some excerpts from a few of them.

Alone in Oahu “My coworker met a man online from England and they ‘dated’ for more than a year. His daughter apparently needed surgery, so she sent him all her savings. The guy led her on for several more months, then told her he finally got together enough money to fly out to see her. She took a week of vacation, booked a romantic hotel and waited at the airport for him. Of course he didn’t show. And disappeared online. I felt awful for her. She never did get her money back.” – winderwednesday9

The Duped Divorcee “My mom and dad recently divorced after 44 years, and my dad turned to online dating very quickly after. He called me in a panic one day saying his ‘love’ had gone missing. I had no idea he was dating and this was only a month or two after they announced their divorce, but he asked me to track her. I worked for a large bank at the time, for 10 years, and know a thing or two about how these online scammers work. He came in and was telling me how he met her, showed me pictures, and I could tell right away that the woman was not who she claimed to be. They never talked on the phone, only by email, and she was supposedly getting ready to go abroad to do mission work in Africa since she was a structural engineer. I did do what tracking I could and when I broke the truth to him, he flew off the handle yelling at me that she was real. I found out later on that he had sent her $16k and had yet to meet her. Most recently, he’s talking to a girl in Florida and she got on a plane to NY to come see him and never arrived, so he filed a missing persons report with the police. The police told him she was a catfish and he does not believe him.” – Anonymous

Hot Jock Gone Wrong – “I was in high school and played basketball for my community’s league. I got a friend request from a guy that looked like your typical ‘hot jock.’ I added him back and we started talking every day. I told my friend on my basketball team about him and she told me she actually knew him from when she used to live in another town. I was thrilled because I figured she could help me meet him! Well, I started noticing he’d stop responding to me when I was at basketball practice or games. I wouldn’t even tell him where I was, but he’d just coincidentally stop answering. Then, when I started talking about him to other girls at school, suddenly they all started telling me that they were talking to the exact same guy. Long story short, a girl that went to high school with the friend from my basketball team somehow figured out it had been HER all along! When she got found out she was brought to administration at school where she finally admitted it had been her talking to all of us for MONTHS. Her principal made her delete the page, and we all individually confronted her after.” — Meg

5 Warning Signs of Catfishing 

It’s undeniable that catfish schemes are becoming more elaborate as technology evolves, but you can bet on seeing a handful of common warning signs from someone attempting to catfish you. Here are the big five:

  1. Reluctance to Meet in Person

It’s normal to expect that a person you met online might be too busy to hang out with you within the first few days or weeks of getting connected. It’s NOT normal, however, for several months to go by without a real-life date. If you’re corresponding with someone who has given you a laundry list of reasons why they haven’t been able to make an in-person date happen yet, you may be the victim of catfishing. Or they’re just plain rude. Either way, it’s probably best for you to pull an Ariana Grande and say, “Thank you, next.”

  1. Inconsistencies in Their Stories

Even the best liars will leave plot holes in their stories eventually. And they don’t have to be big ones either — sometimes, it’s the small cracks that create the most damage. For example, maybe the person you’re talking to mentioned back in January that their sister was married with kids. But then, just last week, they mentioned that they couldn’t talk on the phone that day because they were consoling their sister after a breakup with their boyfriend. Unless your online lover is chatting with you using a language that isn’t their native tongue, there’s no reason why they would get “boyfriend” and “husband” mixed up. You may be getting bamboozled.

3 . Refusal to Video Chat

This is a tough one because I, too, would probably be hesitant if someone I just matched with online asked to video chat with me before meeting. But this isn’t because I’m a catfish. I simply dread video chats where I can’t be in sweats on my couch eating ice cream, and I would prefer to meet in person anyway.

Photo of a video call
Video dates have become more common in the post-COVID dating scene.

After we meet and get comfy with each other, I’m down to FaceTime for as long as their heart desires. Catfish, however, have different (and less ice-cream-driven) reasons for saying no. And they’ll do so again and again and again and again. 

4. Claiming to Live Abroad

Some people get so caught up in romanticizing their overseas crush that they fail to pick up on the fact that their lover’s foreign military job or business venture may actually be a clever excuse. It’s putting distance between you and the idea of you two ever meeting. This isn’t to say that every person you meet online who claims to live abroad is a catfish, but it’s definitely a red flag.

5. Being Too Good To Be True

This world is full of plenty of beautiful, caring, generous, funny, great people. There’s no denying that. But, as Hannah Montana once said, nobody’s perfect. So, if a person you’ve met online — or your relationship with said person — just so happens to check every single one of your boxes in every single way, you may have found yourself in the midst of a catfishing scheme. Again, I’m not saying definitively that your love isn’t the real deal. I’m simply encouraging you to keep those lie detectors fully charged. 

Impact on Catfish Victims

As we’ve seen so far in this breakdown, catfishing is anything but a victimless crime. In fact, the impact can be quite severe. The damage done typically falls under the following three categories.

The Emotional Toll

Many catfish schemes involve several months — or even years — of communication between two people. During this time, meaningful and private pieces of information are shared (at least from one of the parties involved) under the assumption of trust and mutual respect. Many people — as we read about in Nēv and Angela’s case — catch deep feelings for each other, and even fall in love. When this illusion of love and safety is shattered, this can cause painful feelings of loss, confusion, and betrayal in the victim. 

Financial Consequences

In Nēv’s case, his heart was broken, but his wallet was spared. In many other cases — as we’ve seen in previous sections — not everyone is as lucky. In fact, according to the statistics, catfishing romance scams trick people out of approximately $600 million per year worldwide. The Federal Trade Commission did research on over 8 million romance scams and found that 24% of scammers will claim that they need money because they or someone close to them is either sick, injured, or in jail.

Catfishers conducting scams have certain lies they use again and again on victims.

Individuals who become victims of financial scammers, such as those depicted in “The Tinder Swindler,” can experience such immense financial betrayal that they spend years paying back their debt and reviving their credit card score. 

Damaged Dating Life 

Breakups with someone you know and love are hard enough. Imagine, on top of that, discovering that the person you considered starting a life with isn’t who they say they are — not even a little bit. The level of damage this can do to a person’s trust in love, or even in people in general, can be significant. These victims may continue in their dating life with heavy feelings of suspicion, bitterness, fear, or even hopelessness. 

Victims could also feel loss in a different sense: Not only did they lose someone they thought they loved, but they also lost their valuable time and energy to a fake persona that doesn’t even really exist. That’s something they can never get back.

4 Tips for Prevention and Protection

We’re all set with the basics of the background story, the warning signs, and the consequences. So, what should your next steps be in the fight against the slimy, deep-water creatures of the internet? Make sure your artillery is fully stocked. Keep reading to discover four steps you can take to optimize your defense against catfish. 

  1. Join Trustworthy Dating Platforms 

Considering that dating apps are the primary hunting grounds for catfish, it can be easy to want to demonize them. But the reality is that sneaky characters on a mission to scam or lie to you exist everywhere online (and, let’s be honest, in person). Plus, the great thing about dating apps is that they need your business. That said, the good ones are going to put in the time, resources, and money to make sure they’re designing their apps to be as safe and catfish-free as possible. This way, you feel comfortable continuing to come back for more. 

For example, many mainstream dating apps — including Tinder, Hinge, and eharmony — integrate verification systems, reporting and blocking options, profile authenticity checks, and customer support in their apps to optimize online dating safety. Each app’s features will vary, so it’s important that you educate yourself on all of your dating app options before making a final decision. 

  1. Verify Identities at the Outset

Catfish schemes become more difficult to get out of the deeper into them you get. The sooner you can verify that the person you’re talking to is, in fact, who they say they are, the better.

Photo of a catfisher
You can do research on Facebook and LinkedIn to verify identities.

There are multiple ways to verify online identities, but here are our top recommendations to start: 1) conduct a reverse image, 2) request that they hop on a video call with you, 3) look for them on social media (many apps will allow users to integrate their socials into their dating profile), and 4) verify through mutual connections (reach out to mutual friends or acquaintances and ask for more information.

  1. Set Boundaries and Be Cautious

As fun and exciting as online romances can be, it’s important to have your antennae up and ready to detect any BS from people you meet in the digital space. This means limiting the amount of personal information you share within the first few weeks or months of getting connected, making clear your preferred method of communication from the get-go (phone calls, FaceTimes, etc.), familiarizing yourself with the warning signs (listed above), and reporting any suspicious behavior. 

  1. Trust Your Intuition

Love may be blind, but our intuition is not. Most of us will get some sort of signal from our bodies (maybe a sinking feeling in the gut or a nagging headache) when we sense that something may be off with a person or situation in our lives. This is our intuition speaking, and it’s almost always right. 

When trying to determine whether the person you’re chatting with online is really who they say they are, tap into that inner voice that’s speaking to you and listen to what it may be saying. 

Keep Online Safety in Mind — Don’t Be Fooled! 

The internet can be a beautiful place for meeting new people and building meaningful connections. But much like Daenerys Targaryen from “Game of Thrones,” it has revealed to us a darker side than we ever thought possible (oops — spoiler alert!). 

Sneaky and malicious characters lurk in the deep waters of the digital landscape, waiting to scam, manipulate, or hurt you in ways both emotional and financial. Knowing this, it’s our responsibility as internet users to become informed on the dangers of catfishing and how to determine when we’ve found ourselves face-to-virtual-face with one. As long as you stay educated, stay alert, and stay cautious, you can all but eliminate your risk of becoming a victim of this slimy virtual crime. Good luck and happy dating, folks!