From debit card theft to widespread data breaches, malicious activity abounds on the Internet. In the early days of email, a plea for help from a Nigerian prince wasn’t as easy to ignore as it is today. Most people know that giving out your personal information to anyone who asks is a sure-fire way to invite disaster, but what happens when your identity gets stolen through Facebook, Instagram or Twitter? Over the last decade, cyber criminals have developed more sophisticated ways to tap into the general population’s gullibility and inherent trust in other people. These days, a popular trick used by pranksters and criminals alike is called “catfishing.” What is catfishing, and what can you do to avoid it? Online vigilance is critical.

Keeping the Rest of Us Fresh

The term “catfishing” or “cat-fishing” came into popular usage when a documentary of the same name hit indie theaters in 2010. In the film, a photographer from New York strikes up a relationship with a Midwest family, specifically one of the family’s daughters. When he goes to meet the girl, he learns that he’s been communicating with one woman, a so-called bored housewife who made up every detail in an effort to escape what she perceived to be a dull existence. Her husband explains the origins of catfishing online by comparing the practice to a shipping tradition. The Week reprinted a direct quote from

They used to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China. They’d keep them in vats in the ship. By the time the codfish reached China, the flesh was mush and tasteless. So this guy came up with the idea that if you put these cods in these big vats, put some catfish in with them and the catfish will keep the cod agile. And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank god for the catfish because we would be droll, boring, and dull if we didn’t have somebody nipping at our fin.

One of the more chilling aspects of this tale is that the original catfish, Angela Wesselman, wasn’t pursuing an online relationship for personal gain or identity theft. Instead, she was simply bored. Unfortunately, victims of cat-fishing don’t have the luxury of laughing off these pranks. More often than not, they become emotionally, psychologically and sometimes financially invested in the scheme, only to discover that the person they thought they knew never really existed.

Catfishing, then, is defined as an act of willful deception. Anyone who uses a fake identify – a doctored photo, a false name, incorrect demographic information or other falsified records – to lure someone into a relationship for any reason is a catfish. It’s important to note the distinction between cat-fishing and self-protective measures, however. If you create a social media profile with a different name, hidden information or altered photos for the sole purpose of protecting yourself or your loved ones against cyber crime, then this is not an example of catfishing. Intent matters when defining catfishing online. A catfish seeks to cause harm in some form or another, and he or she will falsify information to achieve that goal.

The Profile of a Catfish

Catfish, also referred to as catfishers, can be anyone. As evidenced by the 2010 documentary and a subsequent MTV reality series on the subject, catfish come from anywhere, and there’s no typical profile that makes them easy to spot at first glance. This is what makes the crime so perfect and so dangerous to an unsuspecting public. There’s no single motivating factor behind a catfisher’s game. Some do it for boredom or a sick thrill while others pursue an online relationship for more sinister reasons, such as identity theft or monetary gain.

Catfishing online has become a popular sport because of its relative ease. There’s no system of checks and balances in place when it comes to social media. Few social sites offer the kind of rigorous security or background checks that come into play when opening a bank account or checking your credit score. Anyone can snag a picture from a free image site and build a website around a fake persona. Worse, anyone can lift another person’s real photo from a site like Facebook and create a new profile based on the image. But while there’s no way to prevent a person from creating a fake profile, there are ways to spot a catfish. The following red flags should help you keep your guard up:

  • Sob story: Most catfishers will tell you a lengthy or convoluted sob story about why they can never meet in person or why they won’t talk on the phone. They may have “just gotten out of a bad relationship” or be “suffering from childhood trauma.” These can also be legitimate excuses for someone to keep her walls up, but if she consistently relies on these excuses to avoid real contact, it’s a red flag.
  • Inconsistent information: Does the person’s story change? Small details here and there might not mean anything, but big changes should put you on alert. Details such as a person’s specific company or position, his family life or personal attributes can be easily verified, so call out anyone who tries to fudge this information.
  • Limited photos: If all you ever get is professional-looking still shots of your online partner, then you may be dealing with a catfish. Online catfishing depends on fake photos, so ask for candid shots if you get suspicious. Include specific items in your request, such as a movie or an item of clothing, so that the person can’t just send you an image from a stock photo site.
  • Odd behavior: Some people really do fall in love at first sight, but it’s not common, and it’s unlikely if you’ve only communicated online. If your admirer starts professing strong emotions – good or bad – or using odd language, then say something. Be direct, and don’t worry about hurting a genuine person’s feelings. Real people will understand your need for boundaries.
  • Online-only contact: This is one of the biggest marks of a cat-fishing scam. If a person refuses to meet you for coffee, chat on Skype or talk on the phone, then you’re most likely being played. A certain level of modesty is expected when meeting people online, but consistent refusals should raise a red flag.
  • Requests for money or other services: Believe it or not, but a lot of people fall for catfishing schemes that involve money or other services. In extreme examples, people have lost over $20,000 simply due to misplaced trust. Never send money to a person you don’t know, especially one you’ve never met in person. If someone starts asking for money or other goods and services, then it’s probably time to find a new relationship.
  • Sudden or frequent changes in personality: Everyone has bad days, but a catfisher can use this common occurrence to her advantage by manipulating your response. Don’t be fooled by a total change in personality. This issue often comes up with teenage cyberbullying, when a young person gets duped into a false sense of security and ends up becoming a victim of harassment. Ditch any relationship that makes you feel worse about yourself, including and especially ones that start online.

Just as anyone can be a catfish, so can anyone become the victim of a cat-fishing scam. Most notably in recent years, football player Manti Te’o became a high-profile victim of online catfishing in 2013 when it was revealed that his long-time Internet girlfriend never existed, shedding light on the fact that not only is catfishing a current phenomenon, but it can also strike the least likely of people. At best, catfishing is a cruel joke. At worst, it’s a nightmare of identity theft and psychological torment.

The Sinister Side of Catfishing Online

Is catfishing really a big deal? After all, a girl who creates a fake Twitter account to trick her friends is hardly a criminal. It’s true that harmless pranks aren’t always a cause for concern, but in an age where anyone can be anything online, catfishing represents deeper issues of misplaced trust, vulnerability and gullibility. Beyond criminal activity like identity theft or monetary fraud, cat-fishing can be directly tied with another sinister side effect of online anonymity: cyberbullying.

Over the last few years, the news has been inundated with stories about people – usually teenagers – who fall victim to personal attacks and online bullying, which lead to devastating consequences in the form of self-harm and suicide. Catfishers don’t always look for relationships. They may instead seek revenge for a perceived slight. In these cases, the victims get lured into a friendly, platonic relationship, only to be manipulated into believing that they’re unappreciated or worthless. The bullying prevention site reported that over half of teenagers had been victims of some form of cyberbullying in 2014, and 25 percent received repeated harassment via cell phone or the Internet. Sadder still, 95 percent of teens who witnessed cyberbullying simply ignored it. Childline, a UK-based counseling service for adolescents, reported that cyberbullying concerns were up 87 percent in 2013, and they continued to receive calls from depressed youths who didn’t know where to turn for help or support.

A common misconception about cyberbullying in general and cat-fishing in particular is that there’s little that you can do to prevent it. Fortunately, you can take proactive steps to avoid becoming a victim.

Simple, Effective Online Safety Measures

Catfishing isn’t reserved for the gullible, but catfishers are more likely to target people who they believe aren’t as vigilant about online security. Dating sites, social media and apps offer perfect opportunities for cyber criminals because they’re easy to join and require little effort. In order to prevent a catfish from succeeding, take the following precautions when browsing your favorite social media sites:

  • Adjust your security settings. Facebook allows users to control how much information gets presented to the world, ranging from extremely restrictive to totally lax. Other sites offer similar features, enabling users to protect themselves against stalkers, predators and other cyber criminals. Adjust your security settings to the point that makes you comfortable, even if that means that only a handful of close friends and family sees your posts.
  • Keep information private, and don’t post anything compromising. Cyber criminals, particularly catfishers, thrive on information. Using your photos, your birthday, your likes and dislikes, and your posts, they can create their own version of you to trick someone else or to trick you into believing their lies. Limit what you post to social media, avoiding critical information like your date of birth. It’s okay to use social media for its intended purpose – fun and socializing – but be wary of how you present information and who gets to see it.
  • Choose friends wisely. If you get a friend request from someone you don’t know in person, then take the time to research that person’s online presence. Red flags include limited or no photos, little to no profile information, a story that’s too good to be true, and poorly written messages with odd grammar or unusual phrases.
  • Run an image search to verify photos. Google Goggles is just one of several ways to run an image search on a questionable individual. You can also use image-based search engines to check and see if your own photos are being used without your permission. When you connect with someone online, search for his or her image to see if things check out. You’re looking for suspicious activity like multiple accounts with the same image, a person whose profile and picture don’t match up or proof that the image came from a stock photo website.
  • Ask for details, and don’t be shy about requesting information. Don’t be afraid to ask important questions and demand details. Too often, victims of cat-fishing get caught up in respecting a stranger’s privacy, and while this might be a good practice in everyday life, it’s not practical for the world of online dating and social media. You have a right to know who you’re talking to. If the person won’t commit to talking on the phone or chatting over Skype, then there’s a good chance that you’re being catfished. Real people want connections that go beyond an email inbox. Catfishers want to trick you.
  • Conduct the relationship like you would in real life. In real life, most people would not continue a relationship with someone who refused to provide reliable information about his work, his home life or other important facts. The Internet makes it possible for people to be more guarded, but ironically, the anonymity afforded by online dating and social media enables cybercrime. Don’t be fooled into thinking that a secure password and limited information will keep you safe. Treat online relationships like you would any other relationship in your life. Move on if the person continues to dodge questions, refuses to meet you in person or starts asking for money.

What to Do If You’ve Been Catfished

If you suspect that you’ve been the victim of catfishing, then there are some steps that you can take to recover. First, make sure that you’re actually dealing with a cat-fishing situation. What is catfishing, again? It’s an intentional scheme to trick people into a relationship, whether for personal gain, boredom, mockery, cruelty, a personal vendetta or money. No matter the reason, catfishing is a deliberate attempt to deceive. Once you’ve investigated your online relationship and determined that it’s false, you can proceed to direct action, including:

  • Filing a police report: Filing a police report may not help you legally, but if you’ve given someone money who turns out to be a catfisher, then you’ll stand a better chance of recouping the loss once you file a report.
  • Discussing your options with a lawyer: According to The Huffington Post, there’s little legal recourse for a victim of catfishing online since it’s a relatively new concept with hardly any precedent, and it’s difficult to prove. However, there are some states that make it easier to press charges, and 34 states currently have laws against cyberbullying. An attorney can advise you whether you have a case that supports legal action or not.
  • Reporting the situation online: The government takes cybercrime seriously. If you’re a victim of catfishing, report the abuse to the Internet Crime Complaint Center. In addition, you should notify the social media companies that you’ve used to communicate with your catfish, including online dating sites. Most of these venues have reporting procedures, but if they don’t, then send an email to their support team alerting them of the catfisher. Sites like these depend on open communication and honesty among members, so they’re more likely to deactivate a catfisher’s account if you report the abuse.

Becoming a victim of any crime can be embarrassing, but many victims of cat-fishing schemes fail to report or speak out against it because they feel that they should have known better. Don’t be afraid to warn friends, family members and your social circle about the dangers of catfishing online. Anyone can get tricked into maintaining a false online relationship, and there’s no shame in spreading the word about your experience. Catfishing happens to a variety of people, and even the best intentions and the best security measures don’t always prevent this unfortunate cybercrime. Still, constant vigilance remains the most powerful weapon against Internet scams. Monitor your social media accounts, listen to your gut and always report suspicious activity.

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