Many of us spend time on social media nowadays. Around 39% of Americans have online-only friends—ones they’ve never met in person. Many individuals even go online to find romance.
Although online friendships and relationships are convenient, how can you ensure that the person you’re talking to isn’t just faking their identity? Are they real, and are they who they say they are?
Putting on a fake or stolen persona, or “catfishing,” is a serious problem that internet users deal with, so it’s crucial to see the warning signs.
We know how distressing catfishing can be, so we’ve researched the best tips to spot a catfish online. Don’t miss out on the worst thing that can happen when dealing with a catfish scammer, as well as the best things to do to avoid becoming a victim!
How to catch a catfish scammer: What should you look out for?
Catfishing is a fraudulent activity that describes a person using a fictional identity to lure others into relationships. A catfish scammer may use another individual’s profession, location, preferences, and photos to deceive you and gain your trust.
The term “catfish” came from the 2010 documentary Catfish, which follows American producer Nev Schulman being a victim of catfishing. In the documentary, Schulman thought he’d established a relationship with a young, single woman, but she turned out to be a 40-year-old married woman.
Catfishing can have devastating consequences—from emotional distress to identity theft. Learning how to catch a catfish scammer is a must when you’re venturing into online dating.
Here are some common signs to look out for:
1. Their stories don’t add up or sound too fictional
Catfish scammers often make up fictional stories about themselves to make them seem more desirable and relatable.
For instance, they may pose as a successful entrepreneur, the boss of a large company, or a part of a rich family. Or, they may say that they have a tragic past and are looking for your help to escape their situation.
If you suspect their story is too good to be true or has many inconsistencies, it’s best to trust your gut. You’d be wise to err on the side of caution and avoid falling for their deceptive tactics.
2. They don’t want you to see their face
If you’re talking to someone online and they don’t want to send you candid photos of themselves, the odds are that they have something to hide. They may only have a couple of photos of the person they’re pretending to be—or none at all.
They may make numerous excuses if they can’t send you candid selfies. They might say they’re shy or don’t have a camera. However, this might not be true.
- The person may also avoid real-life meetups because they don’t plan on taking the relationship offline.
- If they claim to live nearby but make many excuses to avoid meeting you in a public place, it may be best to step away.
- If they have valid reasons not to meet up with you, such as living farther away, video chatting is the next best thing.
Video chatting with your online friend is one of the best ways to know if they’re really who they say they are. It’s one thing to see a few select photos of someone, and it’s another to see their face talking to you in real-time.
3. They’ve had the same profile picture for years
If your online friend has had the same profile picture for many years or reuses the same few photos, that may be a sign of them hiding their true identities.
Also, it’s best to check if their profile picture matches their age. If they say they’re in their mid-30s but look like they’re in their early 20s, it’s best to stay cautious. You might be dealing with a catfish scammer.
4. They don’t have a lot of friends on their online profiles
Catfishes usually make new social media profiles wherein they won’t add their real friends because they fear that their buddies might call them out for faking their identities.
Genuine profiles usually have interactions with friends—whether comments, tagged photos, or even birthday greeting posts.
If you’re dealing with an online friend that doesn’t have a lot of friends, reactions, or comments on their profile, you may be talking to a catfish.
5. They don’t post or share anything on their profiles
Some people don’t post regularly on their profiles, which may be the case for individuals who care a lot about their online privacy. However, if they never post, share, or comment on anything, that may be a sign of a faker.
6. They take it to the next level immediately
We know it’s nice to feel like someone wants you, but if your online friend frequently “love bombs” you or shows overwhelming displays of affection, they may be trying to manipulate you.
They may want to “take it to the next level” romantically or sexually even if you just started talking because they want to distract you from knowing more about them. Or, they may be after your information.
Sometimes, they’ll ask you to send sexual photos of yourself, but it’s best to decline if you haven’t met them in person. They may use these pictures to blackmail and extort you.
7. They’re asking for money
A common tactic that catfishes use is asking for money. They may ask you for some cash they can use to visit you or pay some bills under the promise that they’ll give it back later.
If your online friend is asking for money, you can’t guarantee that you can contact them after you’ve sent the cash.
Why do people catfish?
Scammers can catfish for various reasons—malicious or not. Here are some common reasons people perpetrate catfishing:
- For laughs: Some internet users get bored online and want to mess with other people for fun. When this happens, it may be a type of cyberbullying.
- Low self-esteem: Some people tell true stories about themselves and genuinely want to form relationships. However, they hide behind fake or stolen photos to help them appear more attractive to you or express themselves without being insecure about their looks.
- Exploring sexual preferences: Some catfishes want to explore aspects of their sexuality but aren’t comfortable with using their real profiles to do so. Instead, they hide behind fake identities.
- Revenge and harassment: Some catfish scammers are malicious and want to harass others by gaining their trust and breaking it. Others even create fake accounts to take revenge on former partners or persons they dislike.
- Gaining profit through fraud: Catfish scammers can also create accounts because they want to steal money and information. They want you to trust them enough to give them money, sensitive personal data, or sexual content they can use to blackmail you.
A 2019 study revealed that both men and women could catfish, but men are more likely to perpetrate catfishing. They may even switch genders to hide their identities further. No matter the reason, however, the effects of catfishing can still be extremely harmful.
How can catfishing affect you?
If you’re a victim of catfishing, the effects can be devastating. After all, you may feel a sense of betrayal, which can elevate your stress levels and damage your mental health. It can be painful to find that you’re emotionally invested in a fake relationship.
Aside from the emotional harm, there’s also the threat of privacy breaches and financial ruin.
The catfish scammer can use the information you’ve shared to commit crimes like identity theft. They can use your data to take out loans, open financial accounts, or create fake profiles.
The worst-case scenario is that catfish scammers can use your information (especially sexual content) to blackmail you.
Because of this, you must be careful of what you share with strangers online—even those you’ve been talking to for a long time.
You may now be wondering if catfishing is a crime, but in itself, it’s not illegal. However, the identity theft and extortion that may follow the action count as crimes.
What should you do when you interact with a catfish online?
If you suspect you’re talking to a catfish, here’s what you must do:
- If your background checks and inquiries don’t give you anything, ask them why they avoid questions, refuse to video chat, and have stories that don’t make sense. Don’t let them know that you think they’re catfishing you.
- Screenshot your conversations if you deem it necessary, then block and report their profiles on the platform. If you have their phone number, it’s also best to block it to prevent them from contacting you again.
- Change your passwords and PINs if you’ve shared these details with them.
- Stop all contact, then report the situation to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).
It’s best to stay vigilant, as catfishes can create new profiles to target you again. Know the signs to look out for, and be careful before sharing anything with your new online friends.
Guarding your privacy and identity against catfish scammers
So, how can you avoid catfishing?
Kieran Dooner, Account Manager at cybersecurity company Malwarebytes, provides these tips:
- Be suspicious
- Don’t fall too quickly for a pretty face
- Take it slow
- Talk to someone you trust
- Never send them anything
It’s also useful to conduct background checks by searching for their names online or using free tools like BackgroundChecks.org to reveal possible criminal records and other details about them.
Use Google’s reverse image search to identify if they’re using fake photos. They may have stolen their pictures from someone else, and this will show if the images appear somewhere else on the internet.
You can also ask them questions that require specific knowledge to answer. If they keep avoiding your inquiries, it’s best to stay away.
The most important tip is to avoid sharing sensitive personal information you wouldn’t want the public to know. Avoid sharing your address, financial account details, specific aspects of your work, and passwords—no matter how harmless they may seem.
Never send nude or sexual photos of yourself to persons you don’t personally know. They can save these pictures and use them to blackmail you.
It’s also wise to avoid sending them any money, no matter the amount. It’s likely that you won’t get it back.
Catfishing is one of the most insidious yet highly damaging methods of deceiving someone online. It poses many risks to its victims, including emotional distress, a ruined reputation, financial issues, and even identity theft.
Learning how to catch a catfish online is one of the most valuable skills you can have, so keep the above-mentioned warning signs in mind as you build relationships and friendships online.
Trust your gut if something feels off about the person you’re talking to, and remember that it’s best to err on the side of caution.
Be careful not to share anything you wouldn’t want the public to see, never send them money, and stay vigilant to avoid catfishing!