Shows such as MTV’s “Catfish” helped turn an internet phenomenon into must-see TV, but some catfishers are too extreme for an entertainment program. These pro-level catfishers are at the top of their game, and their game is identity theft, scamming, fraud and deception using a fake identity.
As a reminder of what might be out there if you don’t take precautions, we’ve compiled the following list of the most notorious catfishers in history. If there was a catfishing Hall of Fame, these miscreants would be inducted today.
The Catfish of Notre Dame
Retired New Orleans Saints linebacker Manti Te’o was the victim of a famous catfishing scandal while a senior at Notre Dame. At college Te’o became embroiled in (what he believed to be) a long-distance relationship with a girl called Lennay Kekua, which involved conversations online and by phone. When Kekua died tragically from leukemia, Te’o cited her death as a major inspiration for driving his team to a Bowl Championship Series national championship game.
They lost that game, but worse was to come. Reporters soon discovered that Kekua had never existed and that Te’o had been duped. Eventually a scammer named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo confessed to the hoax, admitting that he had used high school pictures of his classmates to create Kekua’s profile and was himself romantically in love with the football star.
The Niece Who Was Not So Nice
When an Alabama teenager blocked her aunt on Facebook in 2014, the aunt posed as a fictional online character as a means of communicating with her wayward niece, and tried to persuade her to stop chatting with random strangers online. Unfortunately, the niece in question, 19-year-old Marissa Williams, soon asked the imaginary Tre “Topdog” Ellis (aka her aunt) to shoot her aunt, cousin and the family dog. After the aunt alerted the authorities, Williams was charged with solicitation of murder but later escaped on bail and has been a fugitive ever since.
The MySpace Catfish
Back in 2006 when MySpace was the go-to social network for teenagers, 13-year-old Megan Meier met and fell under the spell of 16-year-old “Josh Evans” who befriended her at first, before ending their relationship with a series of cruel messages claiming, “You are a bad person and everybody hates you.”
The reason for the change in tone soon became apparent. “Josh” was not a 16-year-old boy, but 47-year-old Lori Drew, the mother of Sarah Drew, another student at Megan’s middle school. When the two eighth-graders fell out at school, Sarah’s mother decided the best plan of action was to entice Megan into a fake relationship online to extract further details.
Tragically, the cruelty of Josh’s words, along with the vicious insults from classmates that followed, led to Megan taking her own life. Lori Drew was ultimately acquitted of any wrongdoing, but Megan’s parents went on to set up the Megan Meier Foundation to raise awareness of cyberbullying.
The Ghost of Easterville
Bored, lonely and isolated. Those were the perfect ingredients for reclusive Canadian 33-year-old Shelly Chartier of Easterville, Manitoba, to engineer a high-profile catfishing scam in 2011. Chartier posed online as Paris Dunn, a genuine 17-year-old California model, and soon slid into the DMs of NBA star Chris Andersen of the Denver Nuggets. Pretending to be both Dunn and Andersen, Chartier managed to arrange an actual meeting between the two unsuspecting victims, neither of them aware that a third person was behind their communication all the time.
Things quickly took a turn for the worse as Chartier’s focus turned to extortion and blackmail. Chartier was eventually arrested by Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who traced her IP address, and was sentenced to 18 months in jail.
The Catfisher Who Inspired “Catfish”
The creator of MTV’s “Catfish” was himself the victim of one of the most famous catfishing scams in popular culture. Documentary maker Nev Schulman embarked on an online relationship with the beautiful 19-year-old Megan, with whom he shared intimate details and developed a strong romantic bond.
Months later, Schulman discovered that he had been cruelly duped. Megan was a fake profile, and he had been talking to Angela Wesselman, a troubled and married housewife, all along. Wesselman described herself as a mastermind of deception and admitted to having created 21 fake online social media profiles to build out a credible network of friends and family for Megan.
Catfishers are very real, but on a much lighter note, they’re also a longstanding part of Hollywood entertainment. Here are some of the most infamous catfishers from blockbuster movies.
“21 Jump Street”
The purpose might be comedy, but the plot of two undercover cops infiltrating a high school and posing as students certainly ticks the boxes of catfishing. In this case, Jonah Hill’s character Schmidt reluctantly falls in love with Brie Larson’s Molly, inviting her to the prom he never enjoyed as a real high school student. In the sequel, the stakes are raised with Schmidt and Jenko (Channing Tatum) creating fake identities as college students. On this occasion, however, Schmidt’s undercover duplicity comes full circle as he finds himself catfishing the daughter of his police captain, played by Ice Cube.
A classic 1982 comedy that precedes catfishing (and the internet) by quite some time, “Tootsie” sees struggling actor Michael Dorsey (played by Dustin Hoffman) masquerading as mature but feisty actress Dorothy Michaels on a popular daytime hospital drama. Inevitably, Dorsey (dressed as Dorothy) falls in love with his co-star, played by Jessica Lang, who forms an uncharacteristically strong bond with Dorothy (not Dorsey). The deception is revealed in a memorable scene in which Dorsey’s success as both actor and catfish are revealed on live television.
“Catch Me If You Can”
As well as posing as a high school teacher, airline pilot and doctor, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Frank Abagnale Jr. also manages to get engaged to Brenda (Amy Adams) while posing as Dr. Frank Conners. The whole story of “Catch Me If You Can” centers on fraud, deception and catfishing. Ironically, it’s true too. Thankfully, most catfishers are not as quick thinking, creative or resourceful as Abagnale Jr., who later went on to work for the FBI tracking down check fraudsters.
“Big Momma’s House”
Whether undercover FBI agent Malcolm, played by Martin Lawrence, would actually pull off the disguise of a 350-pound grandmother in her 60s is never fully questioned in “Big Momma’s House.” Nevertheless, the ruse is central to the plot and, rather like Robin Williams in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” audiences are willing to indulge the conceit. In this case, Malcolm deceives the real Big Momma’s granddaughter Sherry (Nia Long) but is at least forced to endure a series of farcical comic episodes for his troubles.
“The Talented Mr. Ripley”
Few movies capture the cold, manipulative mindset of a catfisher as successfully as “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” in which Matt Damon’s character Tom Ripley falls in love with, murders, then assumes the identity of wealthy socialite Dickie Greenleaf, played by Jude Law. It’s a masterpiece of storytelling — in this case covering one’s tracks, subterfuge, off-the-cuff diversion and gaslighting.
Catfishing can make for great storytelling, but actually falling victim to a catfisher can be painfully real. To protect yourself against catfishers, find out more about Spokeo’s powerful set of tools for revealing an online contact’s true identity using their email address, phone number, or name.
- Wired – Judge Acquits Lori Drew in Cyberbullying Case, Overrules Jury
- List25 – 25 Craziest Catfish Stories of Lies and Betrayals That Are Actually True
- CBC – International Catfishing Scandal That Rocked the Sports World: Key Moments in Shelly Chartier Case
- Moviefone – 12 90s Movies That Are Now Your Problematic Faves