The documentary film Catfish and the resulting MTV reality show put the term “catfishing” on the map a few years ago, but the phenomenon became widely known thanks to Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o. Simply put, a catfish is a fake Internet person and falling in love with one can be pretty painful. Think it could never happen to you? Check out this football star’s tragic tale.
The Heisman Trophy candidate had a reputation in the sports world as a beloved underdog: Both his grandmother and girlfriend passed away during the 2012 football season, but he still pressed on, winning half a dozen player trophies in the process. However, it turned out his girlfriend was pure fiction, and her illness was staged as a way to end a three year long prank. Ronaiah Tuiasosopo had created Stanford University student Lennay Kekua using photos of a high school classmate and mimicked a female voice for a few voice messages to the linebacker when the fictional woman claimed she was dying from leukemia. Te’o never met Kekua in person, but was convinced she was real.
What’s the point of catfishing?
1 in 5 people on the Internet use online dating services at some point, making them a prime target for attacks. While Tuiasosopo admitted he went after Te’o due to a combination of personal problems and hero worship, most catfishers post fake accounts to scam lonely hearts or troll chat rooms for their own amusement. The desired outcome might be anything from discovering embarrassing information, driving people toward websites, tricking victims out of money, or advertising prostitution.
5 Ways to Avoid Catfish
1) Stick with dating sites that offer verification services
Verification services connecting public records with questions that only a real person could know, allow members to prove they’re a real person without having to release private information. Sites with this feature will have verification prominently displayed on the user’s profile. Avoid free dating sites that want a credit card number for verification: This is almost always a scam.
2) Look for Obvious Red Flags
There are a few common red flags that there isn’t a real person behind the profile.
- Ridiculous claims: Fake people can have fake backgrounds, and catfishers will make their personas as attractive as possible. Ridiculously high incomes and wild adventures are a sure tip-off that the person behind the account isn’t real.
- Modelling as a profession: It’s hard to fake most professions because of the technical knowledge and experience needed, and the catfisher will want to list something that sounds impressive. That makes modelling an ideal pick because it’s both glamorous and easy to explain: The “person” just travels to photo shoots and looks pretty.
- No profile information: Real people try to draw in like-minded people by writing about themselves, while lazy catfishers will set up a blank profile and message users indiscriminately.
- Links to adult websites: Even if someone is involved in pornography, they aren’t going to link to their own work on a dating profile.
- Absurd amounts of hate aimed at an unconnected third party: Astroturfing isn’t limited to website comment sections; some unscrupulous companies will run smear campaigns on dating sites, usually to discredit competing dating sites.
- Profile photo irregularities: Multiple pictures that seem to be of different people, or that concentrate on their body are a sure tip-off.
3) Do a little searching
A web search of their name can pull up an awful lot of information: Has the name been used for catfishing before? Does this person have a presence on social media sites? Can the name be linked to their profession?
Some important details should be easy to find, especially if they would have been reported in a newspaper including car accidents, marriages, deaths and major business deals. Use a reverse image search to find out where the user pic is from: If it’s a photo of a model, the image will show up immediately. If it’s a photo of a regular person, it shouldn’t be hard to link the photo to a real name. Real people on social media sites have a lot of friends, but catfishing accounts will only have a handful.
4) Control the Information You Have Online
Once you’re “hooked”, the catfish will use online information to try and gain your trust. Many of the tips in step 3 can also be used on yourself. Use reverse image searches to see if your profile pics are being used nefariously.
Services like Google Alerts, Mention and Talkwalker can send you notifications when your name shows up somewhere on the Internet. This helps you track down where your information has been posted.
5) Verify Their Identity
Since catfish don’t exist, these fake people will resist meeting in person. Even if the relationship is long distance, there are a few ways to verify the person is real.
As Manti Te’o’s case proves, it’s not hard to fake a phone call or voice chat. However, video chat is another matter, as it would be highly improbable that the catfisher looks like the person in the profile photos and can come up with responses on the fly. With the availability of free chat systems like Skype and Facetime it’s extremely easy to see someone anywhere in the world.
Can’t do a video chat? Have this online “friend” send you a photo of themselves holding a card with your name and date on it. If someone just flat out refuses to provide you with empirical evidence that they exist, well then . . . they probably don’t.
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- License: Royalty Free or iStock source: http://www.shutterstock.com/dl3.mhtml?id=24527407
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Jessica Ruane is a content specialist for Instant Checkmate, a company that lets you learn more about the people you interact with online.