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Catfished: A Cautionary Tale

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The term “catfished” is often used when a stranger reaches out to you and isn’t entirely forthcoming about their personal details. However, most catfish create an entirely false persona–nothing they share with online friends ultimately proves real. According to Review 42, 53% of online dating profiles contain lies, 83% of Facebook profiles are fake (that’s a staggering number), $304 million was lost to romance cons in 2020 alone. If you haven’t fallen victim to a catfishing scam, you probably know someone who has been catfished.

Your buddy laughs about the random, “hot Russian model” who sent him a Facebook friend request. A female friend decides to try online dating and finds the guy she “matched” with is 50, and not 25. Even the old “Nigerian Prince” emails constitute a form of catfishing. 

We’re going outside of the normal technology content box here, but as most catfish schemes are initially perpetrated online, we feel it’s important to warn you of potential, widespread lures. Even the most intelligent and wise among us could fall prey to a catfish scheme.

So what exactly is “catfishing”? Is it fair to malign and mock actual catfish with this term? How can you spot a catfish? Can getting catfished put you in real danger? How can you protect yourself from falling prey to a catfish?

Let’s take a look at these questions and more.

What getting catfished means

Most writers will tell you that the term catfished has been around for approximately 12 years–Nev Schulman, who recorded his travails in love via the 2010 documentary Catfish, is often credited with first associating the term with romantic swindling. However, Schulman’s creative use of catfish is only a partial truth. Schulman famously released his story of failed, conned romance in the documentary, and went on to host an MTV show of the same name. In truth, Schulman did help to bring hidden, ugly romance scammers into the light. However, the term has been around, and used in a similar way, for at least a century.  

Today, to have been catfished means to have been duped by someone who creates a fake online profile to deceive, harm, or prank you. At its best and most benign, catfishing is a way for a lonely person to live out their fantasy and connect with another human. In 1913, a book titled Essays in Rebellion included a parable called “The Catfish,” which told the story of the catfish as a symbol of people who prod us and make us uncomfortable–keeping us alive through tension.

It makes sense then, that Schulman described the 40-something married woman who posed as a 19 year-old single girl to delve into an online relationship with him as a catfish. The term “catfish” has gained popularity in the decade since the Catfish documentary–and is used to describe the litany of knowingly deceitful online personas who attempt to bait romantic partners. The verbs “catfishing” and “catfished” have also become ubiquitous with tales of woeful online romances.

Does a literal catfish deserve the association?

By nature, catfish are bottom feeders. Fishermen at sea often refer to catfish as “trash fish” and see no practical use for the fish. So, in short–yes. The term “catfish” for predatory online trash and bottom feeders fits.

Sweet Bobby and Manti Te’o’s girlfriend

If you’ve been catfished, don’t feel ashamed! Many people who never thought they’d fall prey to the practice have – men and women from varied professions and vastly different walks of life have found themselves lured in by catfish. In fact, some catfish victims have endured the experience in the public eye. Well-known examples of people who have fallen for catfish schemes include:

  • In 2021, Tortoise Media produced a popular, six-part podcast series called “Sweet Bobby.” The story untangles an intricate web of a multi-faceted catfish scheme. Kirat, a successful thirty-something radio host living in the UK, connects online with a childhood acquaintance, Bobby, only to plunge into a six-year long online romance with him. 

Although they never meet in person, Bobby controls Kirat’s life. Ultimately, Kirat discovers that Bobby is really her young female cousin, Simran. Simran watches her cousin’s life go up in flames, and does nothing to stop this. She only confesses her catfishing scheme when confronted, and her motivations remain unclear.

  • In 2012, former Heisman Trophy finalist and short-term NFL player, Manti T’eo was catfished, and the world watched it all unfold. Te’o spoke publicly about his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, who was supposedly dying of leukemia. It turned out Kekua wasn’t a real person. A man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo created the profile of Lennay Kekua to lure in T’eo. Their relationship consisted only of online conversations and photos and phone calls in which Tuiasosopo disguised his voice.

More catfished statistics

If you’re ever approached by a stranger online, proceed with caution. Some catfishers are sophisticated, know how to speak to your relational longings, and can work around surface-level doubts. Catfish schemes are prevalent via online dating sites, but could start in other interest groups on social media too. Interesting statistics on catfishing include:

  • 25% of catfish schemers lie about their occupation and age.
  • 24% create fake profiles of the opposite sex.
  • 73% utilize images they’ve found on the internet and never share a real photo of themselves.
  • 10% of online dating profiles are fake catfish lures.

Many catfish scams are set up by long-term con artists, looking to siphon funds from unsuspecting seekers of romance. And some catfished victims have faced traumatic loss as a result of the schemes.

Signs you’re getting catfished

Not all online dating matches lead to catfishing fraud and betrayal. However, you’re more likely to encounter catfish online than in real life – it’s much easier to create an entirely fake profile behind the mask of a computer screen. The signs may not present themselves right away, but there are red flags to look for before you find yourself hooked and in harm’s way. You may have met a catfish and have fallen into the trap of an online dating scheme if:

  • Your romantic interest refuses to share a video call with you.
  • You make plans to meet in person, but the other party constantly comes up with last minute excuses and the meeting never occurs.
  • Your new acquaintance finds reasons to ask you for money, or shares that they have a vague terminal illness.
  • Your phone calls with each other sound muffled, or like a voice distorter may be in play.
  • They send you professional headshots or modeling photos as personal pictures.
  • Other than the profile through which they connected with you, you can find no other trace of them online.  
  • After your initial conversation, your contact occurs privately and you’re unable to report them or flag their content to an administrator.
  • They “love bomb” you right away – romance becomes a focal point quickly, and before you’ve had the chance to meet in person.
  • They immediately share convoluted, grandiose personal stories (eg. An ex-CIA agent is unlikely to tell a stranger about their former profession).
  • You feel like you’ve seen their profile bio before, and under a different name.

When in doubt, ask pointed questions. Demand to see a real time photo. Ask for a video chat. If the red flags begin to flame, cut off communication and run far away. Never, ever send a new virtual friend money.

The dangers of being catfished

A catfished victim may have been involved with their catfish for years before discovering the scam artist’s true identity. Feelings of shame and betrayal may leave victims traumatized for years to come. Unfortunately, the damage inflicted by catfish can run to irrevocable consequences too.

  • 47-year-old catfish Thomas Montgomery told a teenage girl he met online that he was 18. The two pursued an online romance until Montgomery confessed his age. The girl began seeing a 22-year-old coworker of Montgomery’s named Brian Barrett…so Montgomery murdered his competition. It turned out Montgomery was being catfished too–his online paramour was actually Mary Shiele–a mother pretending to be her teenage daughter.
  • In the United Kingdom, 50-year-old Robert Deverux used catfishing schemes to rape women he met on Plenty of Fish. 
  • Pedophiles may befriend minor children online, and pose as peers. They may then lure their prey to meet somewhere in public where they abduct and abuse them.
  • Financial losses can occur as a result of both romantic and non-romantic catfish schemes. MTV’s Catfish host Nev Schulman says many catfish looking for a payday find their prey on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Ways to protect yourself

If you think you’re being catfished, there are steps you can take to protect yourself. Here are several ways to take action against being catfished:

  • Don’t accept private messages on social media from people you don’t already know
  • If a profile picture looks “too good to be true,” use Google Images to search for the image in other online pages. If the photo shows up elsewhere, you know you’ve been catfished.
  • Don’t share personally sensitive information in your dating app profile.
  • Even if you’ve initiated contact, be wary of suspicious interactions.
  • Don’t take communication with a potential match off of the app where you met.

Remember, many catfish have perfected their schemes: If you fall prey, and wind up getting catfished, don’t feel ashamed! Use caution when developing any online relationships–romantic or otherwise. If your instincts tell you something rings fals

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