Fake Profiles In Online Dating

Online Dating

Behind the Catfish: Understanding Fake Profiles in Online Dating

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

Reviewed by: Amber Brooks

Amber Brooks

Amber Brooks is the Editor-in-Chief at DatingAdvice.com. When she was growing up, her family teased her for being "boy crazy," but she preferred to think of herself as a budding dating and relationship expert. As an English major at the University of Florida, Amber honed her communication skills to write clearly, knowledgeably, and passionately about a variety of subjects. Now with over 1,800 lifestyle articles to her name, Amber brings her tireless wit and relatable experiences to DatingAdvice.com.

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What do MTV’s “Catfish,” “Gossip Girl,” and “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” have in common? They’re shows I hate-watched as a teenager. In their own unique and cringey ways, the stories were like car wrecks on the side of the highway: tragic, and impossible to look away from. 

Catfish” has stuck with me the most out of all because of its (for lack of a better word) realness. 

I’m sure plenty of storylines and character quips were contrived, but the show follows real people experiencing real pain at the hands of shady internet characters — commonly referred to as catfish. Money is lost, trust is betrayed, and lives are upended.

Despite the fact that the hosts of this iconic show have been stopping sneaky online scammers in their tracks since 2012, people all over the world continue to fall victim to this virtual crime — 20,000 Americans every year, in fact. 

We don’t want you to become just another statistic; hence, this guide. Continue reading to arm yourself with the knowledge you need to protect yourself from the slimy wrath of an internet catfish.

Definition | Dangers | Identifying a Fake | Prevention Tips | Found a Fake?

What Are Fake Profiles?

Fake profiles are pretty much exactly what they sound like: accounts created using false information. They can be social media profiles, Instagram accounts, or dating profiles that include stolen pictures and false personal details. 

Someone’s motivations behind making a fake profile can range anywhere from innocent game playing to malicious crime, depending on the context. 

Here’s an example of an innocent reason: my friend Charlie once created a fake email account with a fake name and fake birthday so he could retake the Pottermore Sorting Hat quiz. Evidently, he was not happy with Hufflepuff. 

I think most would consider this harmless, victimless fun. However, not everyone is so pure in their intentions (or as insistent on being Gryffindor). 

Graphic with text explaining catfish definition
Fake profiles, or catfishing, are all about deception. Usually, the person behind the fake profile is seeking money, revenge, or just having fun.

Other catfish could create a false identity in an attempt to scam you out of money, deceive and manipulate you for revenge, or simply entertain themselves. 

Another type of catfish simply desires an escape. Perhaps they have a difficult home situation or are insecure about certain aspects of themselves (looks, social skills, economic class). These kinds of catfish are less motivated by hurting people and more motivated by connecting with matches they believe wouldn’t be interested in them otherwise. 

We’ll get deeper into this later, but common warning signs of fake profiles can be inconsistencies in their profile information across platforms, low-quality photos or photos that look “too good to be true,” strange or vague answers to personal questions, and, the biggest red flag of them all, reluctance to engage in a video call or in-person meetup. 

The Dangers

It may be difficult to think of a person named after a freshwater fish as being threatening, but many romance scam victims would beg to differ. Catfishing leaves a hole (whether financial or emotional) in ways that can be difficult to recover from. 

1. Financial Scams 

Money (or lack thereof) makes people do crazy things — including scamming people online.

Financial scams illustration

Catfish in the search for their bag will create fake profiles, engage in online conversations, and, at one point or another, claim to be in urgent need of cash. 

This money-hungry catfishing scheme results in $100 million in loss in the U.S. and $600 million globally every year.

According to FTC data, “For cases involving victims between 20 and 29 years old, the average amount lost was $3,679. The average amount lost in cases involving people 80 or older was far larger: $30,448.”

2. Emotional Manipulation and Exploitation 

Losing money can be devastating and heart-wrenching in its own right, but many victims of catfishing find that the emotional damage inflicted by their online scammers is the most enduring. 

Emotional manipulation illustration

At the end of the day, these victims put their trust (and, oftentimes, love) into someone who went on to betray them.

Such trauma can leave people psychologically distressed. It can even become the catalyst for changes in neuro-chemistry. 

According to Talkspace therapist Catherine Richardson LPC, “Being catfished may create new brain pathways that cause people to distrust what that person, and future partners, say and do. That can make people more vulnerable to paranoia and pessimism.”

3. Risks to Personal Safety and Privacy

When you interact with deceptive virtual characters, you run the risk of identity theft.

Risk to privacy illustration

Cybercriminals exploit private details about your life for monetary gain. 

This could mean having your identity stolen, being blackmailed, or having your nudes leaked (aka revenge porn).

Meeting strangers online is inherently risky. Despite the protections and privacy settings online dating apps have, you should always be aware that things may not be as they appear online.

How to Spot Fake Profiles 

Recent statistics show that approximately 23% of singles on dating apps report having been catfished at least once. It seems that deceitful little bottomfeeders are everywhere, but you don’t have to be their next victim. Keep a look out for the following warning signs of fake profiles.

1. Look for Inconsistencies

Catfish may not always be easy to spot at first glance. However, with a little digging and some cross-referencing, you’d be surprised at what lies you can unearth. 

For example, someone you meet online could briefly mention that they have two siblings one week then a month later claim to have three. 

Or, when you go to check their LinkedIn profile, it says they were born in Missouri, but their Instagram bio says NYC. 

The key is to make mental notes (or actual physical notes) of what strangers tell you online so you can refer back to them later. 

2. Analyze Photos (Reverse Image Search Is Your Friend).

If you’re a hate-watcher like me (or a regular watcher, I don’t judge), you know that no episode of “Catfish” is complete without a reverse image search

Nev and Max, the show’s hosts, take images of the person believed to be taking on a false internet identity, copy and paste the image into the Google search bar, and hit Enter. 

Graphic with text and screenshot displaying how to use reverse image search
Take this photo of Glen Powell, for example. Google showed me where it’s posted and similar images.

The search engine will pull up any related images that Nev and Max then sift through to find their true origins. MTV producers aren’t the only ones with access to this power, but you can conduct a search on your match’s photos to see what comes up. 

3. Be Wary of Vague Answers

Getting to know someone online — especially on a dating app — requires you to ask and be asked questions.

If someone makes you feel strange about this or is tip-toeing around their answers, this could be a warning sign that they’re not who they say they are. 

For example, if you ask someone where they work and they say “In an office” instead of stating the company name, or they say “in Louisiana” when you ask them which college they went to, they may be trying to hide something. 

4. Trust Your Instincts

You know how you can sense when someone is looking at you from behind? Despite, of course, the fact that you don’t have eyes in the back of your head? This sort of inexplicable gut feeling is called your intuition

And it’s almost always right. 

So, if you come across an online profile that gets your spidey senses tingling, listen to it. 

4 Tips to Avoid the Fakers 

Just because someone manages to pass the first couple rounds of catfish detection does not mean you’re completely in the clear. Incorporate these tips into your investigation strategy to add that extra layer of protection as you interact with people online.

1. Meet in Person (or Via Video Call) ASAP

Pop quiz: What is the quickest way to discover if someone really is who they say they are? Meet them.

Meet in person illustration

Whether your first date is in person at a coffee shop or at home over a video call, make it happen, and make it happen fast. No sense in dawdling!

A person with a fake profile will not be able to meet up with you face-to-face.

If they make up continuous and probably somewhat ridiculous excuses for why they can’t — such as “the camera on my phone AND computer are broken” or “I’ll be really busy with work for the next couple of months” — then you’ve likely got a liar on your hands.

2. Do Research on Social Media

One of the first things I do when I match with a guy on a dating app is see if they have social media accounts.

Do your research on social media illustration

This is partly because I want more than just the few grainy (or wedding-related) pictures they provided on their dating profile. But also because I want proof that they’re the real deal. 

If you end up locating a new person’s socials, you can cross-reference any info they’ve shared with you in your private conversation.

You can also check for mutual friends and even sus out if they’ve recently been in a relationship (by checking tagged photos). 

3. Don’t Give Out Personal Details

Asking where you went to university is one thing; asking for your address or credit card information is another.

Don't share personal info illustration

Catfishers perpetuating romance scams will try to get personal information from vulnerable people and use it for nefarious purposes.

Online dating talks should be about who you are as a person, not where you do your banking or what your mother’s maiden name is.

Until you’ve met this person several times and can validate their authenticity, we recommend that you keep personal details like your address and income close to your chest. 

4. Never Send Money to a Stranger Online

A kindhearted person can have a hard time saying no to those in need. It’s a natural impulse to want to help someone down on their luck.

Never send money online illustration

But I promise you: Sending money to a person you’ve never met is asking for trouble. 

If you don’t want to add to the $600 million lost globally to catfish, read up on the most common lies romance scammers may tell you online.

These lies include being in the hospital, needing airfare to visit you, or requiring bail money for themselves or a family member wrongfully accused.

What to Do If You Encounter a Fake Profile

According to recent statistics, 10% of all online dating profiles are either bots or catfish.

As a single person with an active dating profile, it’s fairly likely that you’ll encounter one at some point. If and when this happens, we recommend taking the following steps:

1. Report Suspicious Accounts to the Platform

Most apps (if they’re good ones, anyway) now have features that allow you to easily flag fake profiles and get them removed from the platform. 

Note: This doesn’t mean the offender still won’t be able to find ways to return to the site or app if they’re determined, but it at least makes the process more difficult for them.

Reporting a bad profile may protect the next person from getting scammed or wasting time on a catfish, so it’s a worthwhile step to take.

2. Block Communication

There’s no reason this person should continue to have access to you. Block them on the platform that they initially contacted you on. You should also block them on any social media platforms they might have. 

Additionally, block their phone number (if they provided it to you). 

3. Damage Control (If Necessary)

Sometimes you get caught up in the fun of the conversation and let a few personal details slip before you realize you’ve got a catfish at the end of your hook. 

If this is the case, we don’t want you to panic, but we do want you to act quickly. Change passwords, closely monitor your bank accounts and email addresses, and freeze your credit cards, as needed. 

Leave Fake Accounts Behind & Meet a Real Person

If you’re a rose-and-thorn type of person like me, allow me to sum things up in a way that resonates: The thorn of the internet is that its very nature makes it easy for people to lie, cheat, scam, and pretend to be someone they’re not. If you’re not careful, this can lead to hurt feelings and hurt wallets. 

However, the rose of it all is that the World Wide Web has provided us with access to people and communities that we would have never encountered otherwise. 

With the tips and tricks discussed in this guide, you can avoid the fakes and get connected with so many beautiful, authentic, and real people — you know, the ones who don’t steal from you or sell your nudes online. So, stay safe, stay informed, and always trust your gut!