Online dating started for real in the mid-1990s. It’s a fair bet that online romance scamming wasn’t far behind. We all want to connect, but when it comes to your safety and emotional well-being, boundaries and trust must be established before you take the next step. Knowing how to spot a catfish can help you avoid falling prey to this form of emotional abuse as you explore relationships online.
“Catfishing” has become notorious in the world of online dating. A “catfish” or “catfisher” is a person who pretends to be someone they’re not online to enter into relationships based on false pretences. Posting edited images of yourself and tweaking a few details to make your life seem more exciting isn’t always done maliciously, but an over-curated profile is very different from that of the predator who deliberately gains your trust for ego gratification, to trick you into sex, or to trick you out of money. Sometimes catfishing can result in a large-scale financial scam or a real threat to your life and safety.
Even so, finding love online is a real possibility. Since social interaction has moved into cyberspace, many happy couples have come together in chatrooms, on dating apps and though other online venues. During the pandemic lockdowns online love matches have skyrocketed. Sadly, the number of romance scams has also grown.
No matter what type of catfisher you run into—an every-day liar or a truly dangerous con-artist—being scammed is an all-round terrible experience.
What’s more, online scams are often technically perfectly legal. Strictly speaking, if you send money or private pictures to someone online you have done it of your own free will. If you end up sleeping with someone, it was your choice, even if it later turns out they were lying about being single. Although the big social media platforms tell us they are cracking down on security, using a fake profile picture, lying about where you work, or even forging a full fake identity is not actually against the rules in most places.
Let’s get one thing straight from the start: if you have fallen for someone’s lies, it is not your fault that they lied. Online catfishers purposefully keep up with their ruses, they put a great deal of effort and even money into making you believe what they want you to believe.
We tend to hear more stories about men tricking women into false relationships, like the Tinder Swindler pretending to be rich to make himself more attractive, but scams can go any which way. In recent years a number of LGBTQ dating apps have suffered from “sextortion” hate crimes and catfishing scams. Anyone can use a false identity and among professional scammers there might even be several people operating a single account—manging the interactions, keeping up the conversation, and even faking video calls.
Don’t trust everything you read on the internet. This has been true since the beginning, and technological advance keep upping the game. Trying to stay current with new online scams and the latest deepfake technologies can be exhausting and really damaging to your self-esteem.
A great rule of thumb that never gets old is—if it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t true. Everyone tries to make the most of first impressions when they start dating, and what happens online is no exception. You might be tempted to present yourself in the best possible light and use a pre-pandemic photo that isn’t quite what you look like today. That is completely normal, and also a good indication that we shouldn’t get carried away by pretty words and pictures.
Being cautious doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you or that you don’t deserve the best. If chatting with a new romantic interest leaves you guessing whether the interaction was genuine or if every compliment is secretly fake, trust your instincts. Catfishing has often been compared to cyber-bullying, just like when the popular kids at school pretend to be nice to less popular kids so they can laugh behind their backs later. If someone is deliberately trying to trick you, they are not respecting you as a person. No one deserves to be treated that way but sometimes these situations happen.
The short answer is that it can happen to anyone.
Some groups are more vulnerable than others and make easy pickings for professional scammers:
Anyone online who might be feeling lonely is attractive to the catfisher. Check in with your friends and family members about their online relationships. If your widowed mother is suddenly direct messaging a great guy who showed up in her Facebook feed, make sure she is informed about the risks and can recognize the red flags.
The biggest red flag, a military-grade flare, the point to stop and re-evaluate, is when person you’re chatting with starts asking for money. It makes no difference whether they are asking for themselves or for some other very convincing reason.
NEVER EVER SEND MONEY TO A ROMANTIC INTEREST ONLINE no matter how well you think you know them, even if you have been involved for months and have talked on the phone or by video chat. Don’t send money. Don’t reveal your bank information. Don’t share any personal information about your living situation in general.
An experienced scammer will give you an urgent and compelling reason they need money. It may be for medical expenses, to help their grandma, or to be able to come and visit you. No matter how genuine they sound and how much you want to trust them, stand your ground. If this person really doesn’t have a single friend, colleague, or family member who will loan them money in an emergency, there may well be a good reason for that. There are legitimate ways to borrow money that don’t involve hitting up strangers cultivated as friends on the internet.
Cryptocurrency scams are also rampant. Your love interest might casually start talking about cryptocurrency and mention how successful they or their friends have been. Curious to learn more and hoping to impress your new crush you might be tempted to get in on the action. Easy money is so alluring. But beware of high-pressure marketing by anonymous players, unsolicited offers to join groups and download apps, celebrity endorsements, and guaranteed returns. If your new friend is pressuring you to invest in something you don’t understand, do your research!
A quick online search is not enough. Fake brands and entirely fictitious websites can be very convincing. You register with your personal information and add money to your new account. Everything looks good and you are excited to be part of the cutting edge, but before long your money is gone, and your data has been sold to other scammers.
Any legitimate cryptocurrency start-up must publish a white paper that documents the purpose of the venture and the technology behind it. If you want to get into this high-risk game, you should know what you’re getting into.
However, if you are being catfished by someone using a fake profile, there are likely to be tell-tale signs long before they ask for money. Here are some things to look out for:
Their job is remote, secretive, or improbably high-profile. So-called military romance scams are extremely common. At first glance it all makes sense: lonely servicemen, stationed far from home, doing stressful, repetitive work might look for love online. Why not? Well, this scenario also provides easy dead-end answers to the questions that are sure to come as two people get to know each other. Where exactly are you stationed? What do you do there? What did you do before you joined the military? When can we meet? Can you send more photos? Sorry baby, that’s classified.
Similar scripts include posing as an oil rig worker, a foreign diplomat, or an important executive for some hush-hush, and most importantly remote, company or organisation.
They start talking romance very quickly. “Love bombing” is a term for sweeping someone off their feet in the first weeks of dating with promises of love and marriage, with romantic gifts and grand gestures. This is a way of “storming the citadel” and gaining access to personal information such as your address and phone number very quickly.
It is very tempting to allow yourself to believe and to respond in kind. Who doesn’t love being loved? Alright, so it’s a bit over the top, but he’s lonely, or perhaps he’s different because of his foreign mentality… If you want to justify your involvement it won’t be hard to do, but we recommend keeping your feet firmly on the ground until you have a better grasp of the situation.
Their online presence is odd. They have either very few or far too many social media friends. Their profile picture is too good to be true. They brag about their wealth and crazy adventures. The profile hasn’t changed much in years, or they never seem to be doing something in the present, like going to a concert or checking in to a restaurant. Do their friends ever wish them Happy Birthday or share funny memes?
What they tell you doesn’t add up. If you notice discrepancies in what they share about their family, their childhood, their plans for the future, or anything else; if they avoid certain topics or get defensive when certain things come up; if they “get their facts mixed up”—don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions. If no information is forthcoming, that relationship is probably not worth pursuing. Fact-check what you are told, but remember—if you can find it online, so can the person operating the other profile.
They copy-paste or don’t speak your language. Another warning sign is bad grammar and weird, formulaic language. Typos and auto-correct mishaps are pretty standard, but those Nigerian princes out there tend to be more focussed on the pot of gold at the end of the scam than on communicating well. Some scammers work multiple marks at the same time. Try pasting a message from your online suitor into the search engine for your social media platform. If it pops up, you’ll know for sure he is not the one.
They break promises. You have been texting and finally agree make plans to talk and hear each other’s voices or to meet at a safe public place. You keep the date, but they cancel at the last minute or simply don’t show up, presenting some excuse when they reach out again. Are they really that flaky or are they just trying to keep you on the hook?
They quickly become controlling. What are you doing right now? Who are you with? Where are you going tonight? Does your chat-buddy want all the details? Is it because they are so into you? Check in with your gut. How do these questions really make you feel? Don’t make excuses for controlling behaviour! Control is a bright red flag, even in people who are being completely honest about their identity.
The following precautions are a must for anyone involved in online dating:
Cross-check their social media profile. When chatting to a potential romantic interest, get into the habit of googling their name together with their workplace, hometown, school, hobbies, or events they mention to find out if the information presented in their social media profile is truthful and learn to use reverse image search to double-check their photos. The results won’t always be precise. For example, Instagram changed its API in 2018, so certain services can no longer integrate directly. But there are ways around this. Save their profile picture to your computer and upload it into an image search engine such as Google Image Search, TinEye, Veracity, or others. If your new crush is using someone else’s photo, image search is a pretty good (but not fool proof) way of finding out.
Make sure that your own online presence is not too revealing. If you don’t already know about privacy settings, take the time to find out how to limit who can see what you share online. And don’t overshare—don’t publish personal information, don’t give away your money, and don’t post or send explicit pictures of yourself.
If you think you have found a good match and you start an online relationship, tell some friends about it. Include the new person in your social circle, even if only remotely. Always tell someone else if you intend to meet up with this person in real life.
Older people and children may not be aware of the extent of online manipulation. Talk to the people in your life about how to stay safe online.
Don’t hesitate to block and report suspicious accounts. If money or anything else has been extorted from you, swallow your pride and report the scammer to the police. The authorities may not be able to help much in the moment—the beauty of a fake identity is that there is little to tie it back to the scammer. But if the catfisher continues to scam other people, a witness statement on record could do a lot of good in the future.
Although there has been a resurgence of catfishing during the pandemic, online scammers are still outliers. Catfishing is a terrible form of emotional manipulation and cyberbullying.
If you yourself feel the need to hide behind a fake persona online, reflect on this and consider seeking professional help.
When it comes to online romantic interests, it is far better to be safe than sorry. A decent person will respect your need for reassurance and safety when talking and finally meeting up. If your romantic partner is real, they also deserve honest communication from your side. Together you will be able to navigate the dangerous seas of internet dating and create something imperfect but beautiful IRL.
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