What Is Catfishing? 7 Signs to Watch Out For

Nobody is immune to the dating scam known as catfishing. Here are the top signs to watch out for.

Love has a tendency to give the world a rosy glow, which is part of the reason so many people have found themselves blindsided by a romance scam known as catfishing. But what is catfishing, exactly, and why do people do it? At its simplest, the scam involves creating a fake online identity to garner romantic attention. Catfishers use photos and details gleaned from the internet and tend to catfish multiple victims simultaneously, sometimes love bombing 10 or more potential victims at a time.

“The romantic attention is either used to siphon money from an unassuming lover or because they have self-esteem issues and just want romantic attention from someone,” explains cybersecurity expert Peter Strahan, founder and CEO of Dublin-based IT support company Lantech.

The world is ripe for online scams, and anyone is a potential target—victims can be of any age, any gender and any sexual orientation. Catfishing is at the core of most romance scams, and UK company Scamalytics reports that 500,000 of the 3.5 million dating profiles it scans monthly are bogus. Catfishing and close relatives like military romance scams are on the rise, and according to Monica Eaton, chief operating officer of anti-fraud company Chargebacks911, romance scams increased tenfold between 2015 and 2020. “The median average loss from romance scams is now $2,500 per person,” she says. “Romance scams are not just heartbreaking—they can break the bank too.

According to FBI data, there were 24,299 catfishing cases reported in 2021, up from 18,493 in 2018. “That is 30% growth in the last four years, which shows that the number of attacks is growing and people still don’t learn their lessons,” says Daniel Markuson, a digital privacy expert with NordVPN. “No one is immune to this kind of scam, so it is important to know how to stay secure.”

What is catfishing?

Online dating has made meeting new people more accessible, but it’s also given fraudsters the perfect opportunity to scam hopeless romantics by using a phony online identity. So, what does catfishing mean? It means you’ve been hooked by a romantic partner who isn’t the person they claim to be.

“Con artists create compelling backstories and trick you into falling for someone who doesn’t exist,” says Lisa Schiller, director of investigations and communications for the Better Business Bureau of Wisconsin. If you’re online dating, you need to be aware of all the nuances of catfishing and not be caught asking yourself “What is catfishing?” when you’re already hooked on someone’s line.

Think this could never happen to you? Think again. If you’re looking for love online, you’re at risk. One thing all catfishing victims have in common is that “they all believe in true love, and they believe they’ve found it,” says Schiller.

One thing you might notice from the catfishing definition is the emphasis on online spaces. Because it involves the creation of a fake persona, catfishing exists exclusively online: on dating sites such as Tinder and Hinge, on social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook, and on messaging platforms such as WhatsApp and Telegram. It’s less likely that someone will catfish you through your phone number or email—but it’s not out of the question.

Why is it called catfishing?

The name of this romance scam refers both to the literal action of catfishing—hooking unsuspecting catfish in the water—and to Nev Schulman’s 2010 documentary of the same name. But you may be more familiar with the MTV series that ran for eight seasons.

Both the film and the series document the truths and lies of online dating. In the documentary, Vince, one of the characters, explains how when cod is transported from Alaska to China, the meat becomes tasteless by the time it reaches its destination. To keep the cod active and agile, fishermen put live catfish in the tanks. “And there are those people who are catfish in life,” Vince continues. “And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing.”

Why do people catfish?

Catfishing can be a major scam with your money as the end goal. Or it could be a means of entertainment, blackmail or dating with insecurities. In other words: There are a handful of reasons someone might catfish you.

“Sometimes a catfisher is simply a lonely person hiding behind a fake persona,” explains Schiller. “But often it’s the first step in a phishing scheme to steal personal information or a romance scam to trick you out of money.”

Insecurity

Not all catfishing arises from malicious intent. Sometimes the catfisher isn’t trying to scam the victim out of money and is truly hoping for a romantic partner. But because of insecurities, they think the only way to achieve that is through faking a profile.

“The scams that are the most successful are the ones that we want to believe are true,” says Eaton. And this hope can exist on both ends of the dating app.

Entertainment

Some people engage in catfishing purely for entertainment. Donna Andersen, the founder of LoveFraud.com and author of Red Flags of Love Fraud, has talked to many women with romance scammer stories—and tales of catfishing in particular. “These women resisted and resisted, and the catfishers kept pursuing and pursuing,” she says. “Still, they never met in person. Finally, the women succumbed and agreed to the relationship. The catfishers promptly disappeared.”

For the catfishers, it was all a game. They wanted to see if they could make the women fall in love with them. When the women did fall in love, the game was over. The catfishers won. People who catfish for entertainment most likely suffer from a mental illness, such as antisocial, narcissistic or psychopathic personality disorders.

Bullying

Some people catfish so they can harass or cyberbully someone while remaining anonymous, which is one of the more problematic issues with catfishing. Sometimes catfishers create fake profiles to harass people simply because they have different political or religious viewpoints.

“People create a fake profile, start chatting with their victim, gain their trust, find out personal details about them and then use this information to bully them,” Markuson says. This cyberbullying could also lead to doxxing.

Blackmail

Sometimes a scammer will convince a victim to send compromising photos or videos with the premeditated intention of threatening to release the images to their digital contacts unless the victim pays them.

“The best way to avoid this scam, of course, is to avoid sending compromising photos or videos of yourself in the first place,” Eaton says. “And if you do send something, please be smart and avoid including your face, identifying marks or tattoos, or anything else that might disclose your identity.”

Spying

Sometimes people catfish because they want to stalk or spy on someone they know, often when one partner is trying to catch the other cheating. “Partners create fake profiles to ‘test’ each other,” Markuson says. “And sometimes people use catfishing to get to know a person they’ve seen in real life but are too afraid to talk to.”

Experimenting with sexual preferences

Although it can hurt the people who fall in love with a catfisher’s fabricated persona, it’s not inherently malicious when someone catfishes to try on a new sexual identity or sexual preferences. In this case, the catfisher isn’t trying to deceive, manipulate or win trust through a false identity so much as they’re experimenting with a new identity without fear of judgment or exposure.

Financial gain

Some people catfish with the sole intention of getting money out of their victims. “They prey on vulnerable people and suck them in to bleed them dry,” says Susan Trombetti, a matchmaker and CEO of Exclusive Matchmaking. “Online dating is ripe with fake profiles, and this is the biggest venue for financial scammers.”

Widows, widowers and lonely singles tend to fall for this. “A catfisher will say they have medical bills or cannot finance their traveling to meet the victim,” says Barbara Santini, a psychologist and sex and relationship advisor. They hope the victim will send them money for fictitious bills or for a plane ticket they’ll never purchase.

To protect yourself against catfishers looking to steal from you financially, don’t give out any information—not even your email. Hackers can do plenty of damage with your email address, including gain access to more of your personal information.

vector illustration of woman video chatting with a catfish scammer via laptopid-work/Getty Images

Signs of catfishing

By now, you should know the answer to “What is catfishing?” Equally important, however, is knowing how to spot it. The seven signs below suggest your online romance may be less than legit.

1. Nonstop chatting

Catfishers want to quickly figure out if they’re building trust or if the victim is on to them, so they love bomb all day and night. “More often than not, catfishers will contact their victims at odd hours of the day,” says Rori Sassoon, a relationship expert, author of The Art of the Date and co-owner of matchmaking agency Platinum Poire. “They may use the excuse of being in a different time zone.”

2. Inappropriate requests

A potential love interest won’t generally request explicit photos at first, but a catfisher might constantly make this request because they’re looking for a way to blackmail you. “The explicit content and other sensitive information make it easy for them to steal from you,” Santini says.

3. Intentionally vague communication

Some people don’t engage with social media, and on its own, that’s not alarming. “But something shady is going on if they refuse to tell you their last name or have a nonexistent social media presence,” Sassoon says. “And that’s the last thing you want to be involved in.”

Catfishers will never reveal details that you can prove—that’s one of the prime ways to identify a scammer. They keep their responses generic and are intentionally vague so you can’t detect outright lies. They’ll tell you they live “outside of Boston” but won’t give you an exact town, or they might tell you the city where they (supposedly) went to college but not the name of the school.

“You can’t track them to an address or a desk at their office or their job,” Trombetti says. “Maybe their name is a very common one, so it’s hard to Google them and find out if they’re really who they say they are.”

4. Awkward or unrealistic photos

If your new beau is sharing photos of his dog but something about them seems off, trust your gut. A photo stolen off the web might be blurry or cropped oddly. “Scammers are after low-hanging fruit,” Eaton says. “So they usually don’t take the time to edit and Photoshop the images expertly. They’re trying to do the least amount of work possible.”

Unrealistic photos are another telltale sign. “Most of the people you meet on social media sites aren’t going to look like supermodels,” she says. “Their bodies won’t be shredded, ripped and perfectly tanned, with all their pictures looking like they were taken on location by a professional film crew. I mean, it’s possible that a Victoria’s Secret supermodel is lonely and desperate to meet you, but it’s probably not the most high-probability outcome.”

It’s worth noting that some scammers also use software driven by artificial intelligence to create personalized images of people who don’t exist so you won’t be able to find their photos on the web and see that they belong to someone else. “Most scammers aren’t this sophisticated,” Eaton says. “But it’s coming.”

5. The person is too good to be true

When it comes to online dating, anyone who seems too good to be true generally is. Scammers have mastered the art of scouring accounts for details, which means your so-called girlfriend will likely share many of your interests. “They pretend to want the same things out of a relationship that you do because they are trying to gain your trust so that they can rob you of your money,” Trombetti says.

6. Text-only communication

Texting has become increasingly common—some people use more texting shorthand and emojis than actual words. But if you’ve been texting with a new “online friend” for a few weeks, you’ll get to the point where it makes sense to hear each other’s voices and have an actual conversation. If they won’t, it’s a warning sign.

Of course, you can keep an eye out for warning signs in text conversations as well. “There are chatbots that initiate and mimic text conversations, but you should be able to tell that their responses aren’t on the level,” Eaton says. “Usually, they’re clumsy at redirecting the conversation, understanding references and answering personal questions. They’re great at asking questions—but not nearly as proficient at answering them.”

7. The person redirects you elsewhere

Let’s say you receive a message from a would-be romantic partner, who then asks you to visit an OnlyFans account. Could it be legit? Maybe. There are two possible reasons someone might message you but direct you to an OnlyFans account: They might be on OnlyFans and want you as a member of their fan base. Or they stole photos from someone and are catfishing you.

“It’s possible that the OnlyFans star is romantically interested in you, and it’s also possible that your ‘personal’ message was mass-blasted to thousands of people,” Eaton says. “And it’s further possible that their OnlyFans URL is a phishing attempt to take you to a bogus website and steal your financial data.”

Bottom line: Don’t click on links in messages.

What to do if you suspect catfishing

So your one true love might be a con artist. You’ve done the hard part: Realizing something suspicious is going on. As soon as you suspect foul play, take the steps below.

  1. Don’t send money. Whatever you do, don’t fall for excuses or emotional pleas for help.
  2. Don’t click on any links the person sends—it’s most likely a phishing attempt. If you did click a link, beef up your online security with strong passwords to make sure the fraudster can’t access your accounts.
  3. Stop communicating with the person immediately. Trust your gut.
  4. Block this person and don’t explain yourself. Just go.
  5. If you need actual proof, use Social Catfish to verify the person’s identity. Keep in mind that even if your search comes up blank, you might still be getting catfished.
  6. Report the person’s profile to the dating app or social media site where you met.
  7. If your financial information is compromised, notify your bank and credit card companies immediately.
  8. Report the scam to local law enforcement and, if you’re down six figures or more, report it to the FBI.

With the catfishing meaning firmly in your grasp, you’ll be able to better protect yourself in the online dating world. Protect yourself from financial fraud, too, by learning about grifts related to money-transfer apps, including Cash App, PayPal, Venmo and Zelle scams.

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Jaime Stathis
Jaime Alexis Stathis is a nonfiction writer who covers humans, wildlife, technology, social justice, and everything related to being a human being on a constantly evolving planet. Jaime is working on a novel about a heroine who saves herself and a memoir about caring for her grandmother through the dark stages of dementia.