If there’s one thing we learned about ourselves during the COVID pandemic, it’s that the need for human contact runs deep (even in introverts). We’re a social species, even the least social among us, and that’s why we seek out a sense of community and bonding in our online lives as well as in person.
Unfortunately, some people — inevitably — regard human nature not as a shared experience to connect us all, but as a lever to be utilized for some form of gain. Through a process called catfishing, these people create a persona that’s broadly appealing and use it to gain a victim’s trust. The goal may be a vicarious romance for the catfisher or a lucrative romance scam, but either way it’s heartbreaking for the victim. Here’s how to tell if you’re being catfished and what to do about it.
The Relationship Is On Fast Forward
Usually the first sign that things might be a little off is that the new person in your life seems to have pressed the “Turbo” button on your relationship. Everything seems to happen quickly — that feeling of clicking with someone, the exchange of messages where you find so much in common, that first expression of feeling like “more than friends” — and the next thing you know, you’re telling people you’re in a long-distance relationship.
What’s missing is the part where you learn actual, tangible, verifiable things about the other person. If you struggle to list anything you’ve learned about them from a source other than their own words, it’s time to dig a little deeper.
How To Tell if You’re Being Catfished — The Devil Is in the Details
If you’ve ever had a friend who was prone to — let’s phrase this politely — tale-spinning, then you’ve probably noticed how rapidly the story changed if you attempted to pin down specific details.
The same holds true for your online contacts, and it’s one of the first signs that you might be dealing with a catfish. Your new acquaintance will happily talk all night about the interests you have in common, but strangely might not be active on any of the same forums or Facebook groups as you are or, for example, might not know any of the same players in a specific game.
It’s easy to shrug off these minor disconnects — there are probably lots of people on the next block you don’t know personally — but in conjunction with a high-speed romance, it can be a danger sign that someone’s not who you think they are.
How “Present” Is Their Social Media Presence?
Sometimes a catfish is on the same Facebook group as you (that’s often how they pick a victim) or has a few of the same friends, but their social media presence seems oddly thin. It may be relatively recent, for example, with no posts going back beyond a few months or a year. Also, the posts may be oddly generic: grumbling about work, for example, but never showing or naming the workplace; or mentioning — but never showing pictures with — specific friends or relatives.
Another potential warning flag is someone who follows a lot of people but doesn’t seem to have a lot of actual friends or followers themselves. Take a look at your own Facebook timeline or Twitter feed, and then compare it to your new acquaintance’s activity. Are there posts that generate a 20- or 30-response thread, full of in-jokes and teasing? Are they tagged often in other peoples’ posts or photos?
If they aren’t, you have to ask yourself why.
A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words
The photos you see attached to someone’s account also tell a story, and it’s one that may not add up. Again, start by taking a look at your own timeline and those of your friends. You’ll probably see lots of candid shots of people just being people, living their lives. They’ll mostly be regular cell phone photos with pets, at a restaurant or with friends.
Catfish can’t very well post their own photos, so they rely on pictures scraped from social media and blogs or even from stock photo sites. They may have just a handful of pictures or pictures that all seem to be from around the same time and with the same people. Sometimes the photos will all be suspiciously professional-looking.
There are a couple of easy ways to check the legitimacy of someone’s profile pictures. In Firefox, you can right-click and choose “View Image Info,” which will show the source of an image. If it’s filled with copyright information, you have a catfish. In Chrome you can right-click and choose “Search Google for Image.” If the picture shows up on a random person’s page (or worse yet, on several pages with different names), you have a catfish. You can do the same in any browser by going to Google’s reverse image search tool and searching that picture.
Communication Is Always at Arms-Length
Here’s another big red flag: How do you communicate with your new acquaintance? Can you just pick up the phone and chat or do a quick video call on Zoom or Facebook Messenger? Or do you only ever communicate through written messages? Do in-person meetings always seem to hit a roadblock at the last minute?
These are all serious warning signs that you have a catfish. Pretending to be someone you’re not means you can’t show your real face or, sometimes, even chat with your real voice. The excuses are often plausible (that’s why “I’m deployed overseas” is a staple with catfish), but it’s still a danger sign if they won’t be on-camera with you in real time.
The Money Thing Happens
One final red flag is that you find yourself sending money to someone you’ve never met in person. Sometimes they’ll flat-out hit you up for funds (“My car broke down and I can’t get to work”); other times they’ll be more artful and just mention a difficulty in passing (“…pulling some extra shifts this weekend…” or “…my car/ex’s car/sister’s car needs some work…”) which creates an opportunity for you to step up and be that good friend by helping out.
Not every catfishing scheme comes down to money (or gifts), but a lot of them eventually do.
Confirming You’re Being Catfished
If any of those potential “red flags” resonated for you or confirmed your own gut feeling that something wasn’t quite right, it’s time to drill down a little further. If you have any mutual friends on social media, for example, check if anyone actually knows this person or whether it was a random friend/follow request. You might also check an online source like the BBB’s Scam Tracker to see whether the story you’ve been given is a match for current scams.
This is also the right time to use Spokeo’s people search tools to confirm (or dispel) your suspicions. Search the information you have, whether it’s a name, a phone number, an email address or a physical address. From those search results, you’ll usually be able to determine very quickly whether a person of that name is associated with that address or phone number. If not, you’ve probably caught a catfish.
You’ve Caught a Catfish. Now What?
If you’re pretty sure you’ve caught a catfish, the next question is what to do about it. If your only cost up to this point is emotional, your best bet is simply to walk away. “Ghost” them, block them and move on. A goodbye message just opens the door to more excuses and rationalizations, and remember: Scammers are really, really good at manipulating your emotions. It’s how they make their living. Much better to just close that door.
You might also wish to report that person (or more accurately, persona) to the site where you met, backing up your report with any hard evidence you’ve gathered — scraped photos, a phone number or email address that trace back to a different person — to show deliberate deception. Many major sites don’t allow anonymous “sock puppet” accounts, especially if there’s a chance they’re bent on fraud.
The calculus changes if you’ve already been defrauded, even of small amounts. In those situations, it’s appropriate to file complaints with law enforcement and the FTC. You’re unlikely to ever get your money back, but you’ll at least have the satisfaction of making it more difficult for the scammer in future.
- Buzzfeed News – How Quarantine Has Affected Introverts
- AARP – Romance Scams
- Teen Vogue – 9 Signs You’re Being Catfished
- McAfee – Oh No! 8 Signs That Grandma’s Getting Baited by a Catfish!
- Google Search Help – Search With an Image on Google
- U.S. Federal Trade Commission – Has an Online Love Interest Asked You for Money?
- The Conversation – Have You Caught a Catfish? Online Dating Can Be Deceptive
- Better Business Bureau – Scam Tracker
- U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation – Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3)
- U.S. Federal Trade Commission – Report Fraud