Back in 1989, Will Smith and his musical partner DJ Jazzy Jeff recorded a song called “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson.” The idea of climbing into the ring with Tyson — then the baddest heavyweight of them all — was a comically bad one, and the song’s video played the notion for laughs.
The idea of trying to unmask a con artist might seem equally misguided, but if you suspect you’ve become entangled with an online catfish — someone who’s not who they say they are, often with a romance scam as the endgame — it’s actually a pretty level field. Catfish aren’t usually criminal masterminds, and you can unmask them easily enough once your suspicions are aroused.
Tell-Tale Signs of a Catfish
Meeting somebody online is the 21st-century equivalent of a blind date, in that you start off knowing nothing about each other. The crucial difference is that in a traditional blind date, you’ve been set up by friends who know you both personally. Online, you may be matched by an algorithm, or just meet (at least ostensibly) at random.
That means the only things you know about the other person are the things they tell you, and those won’t always be accurate. Sometimes the deception is a mild one, like using an outdated profile pic or shading one’s height/weight/age just a smidge (that’s sometimes called “kittenfishing”).
It’s more serious if the entire persona is fabricated. Not all catfish are in it for money (there can be other motivations), but if you fall for the deception, you’re likely to get hurt, one way or another. Of course, creating a persona from whole cloth is a complicated exercise and usually results in a number of recognizable “tells” or red flags that will be obvious once you start looking for them.
These include some of the following:
- Never being available to meet in person, though there’s always a very good reason (“deployed overseas” is a big one). They may agree to meet, but something will always come up at the last moment.
- Not being available to video-chat in real time. Catfish typically don’t use their real face on a fake persona, and appearing on-camera would give them away.
- Everything happens at 100 miles per hour. You go from meeting, to discovering you have a (suspicious, when you think about it) number of things in common, to undying love/soul mates in record time.
- They’ll hit you up for money, gifts or other tangible benefits. As we said, not all catfish are in it for gain, but most are: At some point, you’ll be hit with an entirely plausible, often heartbreaking sob story, and feel compelled to help out.
These are just the most obvious few red flags (there’s a longer post elsewhere on the blog about how to know when you’re being catfished), but they’re enough to start with. If any one of these signs is present in your relationship, it’s a warning you shouldn’t ignore.
How to Outsmart a Catfish
Catfish are master manipulators. They make their living by understanding psychology, and knowing how to create an emotional connection. Those are the “soft skills” that con artists live by, but they’re a double-edged sword: Catfish rely on their ability to talk themselves out of trouble, and often skimp on detailed preparation.
That creates vulnerabilities, where you can quickly test whether they’re really who they say they are. These vulnerabilities include the following:
Photos are maybe the biggest single vulnerability for a catfish, because they don’t want to use their real face, and those pics have to come from somewhere. Google’s reverse image search is your friend, here: You can use it to search their profile pic, their social media photos, and any pictures the (suspected) catfish has sent you.
If the images turn out to be from a stock photo agency, or “scraped” from someone else’s social media or dating-site accounts, that’s your smoking-gun proof of a catfish.
Another option is to cheerfully challenge your suspected catfish to an exchange of “right here, right now, no filter” selfies. You can frame it any way you choose (“…just rolled out of bed, bet I look worse than you do!”), but an unwillingness to send a selfie in anything approaching real time is also a pretty strong suggestion that the real person’s face doesn’t match the persona’s pictures.
Drilling Down on Details
This may be extra-deflating, but if you are the object of a catfish’s attention, you’re probably not the only one. Scammers typically juggle multiple “marks” at a time, and that’s a lot of detail to keep track of.
Go back over your chat history and email or text exchanges, and make a note of all the things you’ve been told by your suspected catfish. Over the next few weeks, bring them up again and ask questions (“You mentioned operating heavy equipment up in Alaska. How was that? I have a nephew who’s thinking about that kind of work…”).
Over time (don’t make it sound like an interrogation!), the other person’s responses to your questions will begin to show a pattern. Where real people will cheerfully go into (verifiable) details, a catfish will either be evasive and handwave your questions away (“Ugh, don’t get me started…”) or improvise a narrative on the spot. If the story changes from one time to the next, you probably have a catfish.
Scrutinizing Their Online Presence
If you didn’t originally connect on social media, make a point of offering to connect with them on your choice of platform, whether that be Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or some other option. If they say they don’t have a social media presence, that’s fine; some people actually don’t.
If they are on Facebook or the ’Gram, though, it gives you another opportunity to scrutinize their persona for cracks. It’s a source of photos to verify, for one thing. It also lets you assess how real their account feels: Are there lots of posts from friends? Lots of random, candid photos? How many friends or followers does the account have? How long has it been active, and do posts show up regularly or all in a batch?
Compare that account with the ones of your real friends (and their friends). If it’s fake, you’ll see the differences quickly. If photos are sparse, there seem to be few friends or followers (and if there’s little interaction between them), then you probably have a catfish.
Unmasking a Catfish with Spokeo
Now comes the fun part: taking all of the details you’ve gleaned, and searching them on Spokeo.
Phone Number Search
An excellent starting point is the potential catfish’s phone number, if you have it. Type that into Spokeo’s reverse phone lookup, and see what you find. Ideally, your search will come back with the registered owner’s name and phone carrier, and may also provide an address and a range of other information (including, possibly, accounts at various apps and sites that are linked to that phone number).
If the name and location coincide with what the person told you, then great! They’re (probably) legit. If there’s a discrepancy, or if the number’s Phone Reputation Score says it’s possibly associated with a scammer, you’ll want to dig a little deeper.
Search the name the potential catfish gave you, and then (if it’s different) the name associated with the phone number. Here again you can find additional information, such as whether the person owns or rents (which may confirm or contradict what you’ve been told).
If it seems you’ve found a real name, you can dig further for information like marital status or criminal history (those details are included in some Spokeo subscriptions, and available as a one-time add-on on others).
Physical and Email Addresses
You can also search on physical addresses or email addresses once you’ve got them, either directly from the potential catfish or as the result of your earlier Spokeo searches. These searches may turn up a different name than the one you’ve been given, or alternative phone numbers, or even social media accounts.
Each of these searches yields information that you can take back to the other search tools, repeating the process until you’ve proved to your own satisfaction whether you have a catfish or not.
How to End a Catfish Relationship
If you discover in the end that you are, indeed, entangled with a catfish, it’s going to be a pretty emotional moment. If you act on it right away, while those emotions are fresh and raw, you’ll probably feel a strong impulse toward confrontation. Having it out with your catfish may be cathartic, but it’s also usually a bad idea for a couple of important reasons, such as the following:
- As we said before, catfish are skilled manipulators above all, and you’ve been opening your heart to this one for weeks or months. There’s a high risk that, given the opportunity, they’ll find a way to make you “the bad guy” for checking on them, and use guilt as a lever to keep you from breaking the connection.
- If you’ve already provided them with money or goods, or have reason to suspect that they’re criminals, you’re also giving them the heads-up they need in order to disappear (or worse, to threaten you in the real world).
It’s smarter to simply block them and move on, but in a few cases you might want to take further action. A couple of options include the following:
- You can report their profile to the social media platform, dating app or wherever else you first made contact (most platforms are pretty militant about fake accounts, especially ones that engage in dubious activity).
- If you’ve been defrauded, you can report the incident at the FTC’s Report Fraud website and the FBI’s internet Crime Complaint Center. If the catfish lives in the same area as you, you might also file a report with local law enforcement.
None of those steps will ease the emotional pain and sense of loss you’ll feel as a result of your misplaced trust, but they will make it harder for the catfish to victimize someone else. More importantly, you’ll know what to look for in the future, in order to avoid falling into the same trap. It’s a hard-won lesson, but a valuable one.
- Songfacts: I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince
- US Federal Communications Commission: Love & Appiness: How to Avoid Romance Scams
- Google Search Help: Search With an Image on Google
- US Federal Trade Commission: Report to Help Fight Fraud!
- US Federal Bureau of Investigation: Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3)