What is Catfishing?

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Catfishing is when a person sets up a false profile on a social networking or dating website for abuse, deception or fraud. Catfishing is often employed for romance scams on dating websites. It’s one of many types of cybersecurity threats you need to be aware of in the modern world.


What is catfishing?

A catfish is a person who sets up a false personal profile on a social networking or dating site for fraudulent or deceptive purposes.

Generally speaking, the goal of catfishing is financial or material – however, catfishing techniques could be employed to gain privileged access to, or information from, a business. While catfishes aren’t always malicious, the vast majority are created to obtain money or data from individuals.


Origin of the term catfish

A catfish sounds like an odd term for someone who assumes a false identity online, but there’s some sense to it. It came from the film documentary of the same name, which then became a tv show and gained popularity as a way for people to refer to false profiles being created to fool individuals online. The story of its origins goes like this:

“They used to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China. They’d keep them in vats on the ship. By the time the codfish reached China, the flesh was mushy and tasteless. So this guy came up with the idea that if you put these cods in these big vats, put some catfish in with them and the catfish will keep the cod agile. And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh.” – Quote from the documentary


Catfishing and online dating statistics

ESET conducted research seeking to uncover the cybersecurity habits of 2,000 people across the UK when it comes to online dating and being safe online.

  • 55% of over 55s worry more about their cybersecurity than 16-24 year olds
  • 52% say loneliness around Valentine’s Day makes them vulnerable to catfishers
  • 41% of consumers believe that they face more cybersecurity risks when online dating around Valentine’s Day
  • 29% of respondents said they carried out basic background searches on the people they talk to on dating sites – whether this is searching on Facebook, Google, Twitter, or other platforms
  • The number drops dramatically in older age ranges, as less than one in five (18%) of over 55s say that they carry out background searches, making them more likely to be catfished
  • This is regardless of the fact that 69% of respondents say they are concerned about their online security
  • 13% admitted that using online dating sites or apps makes them more vulnerable

The sheer number of profiles found on dating sites, combined with the speed at which online relationships can develop, provides an ideal breeding ground for catfish – people who pretend to be someone they’re not in order to scam and exploit those looking for love. The consequences of this can be extreme, as scammers may steal their victims’ identities, lure them into dangerous situations, or defraud them of thousands of pounds.

If someone you’ve never met in person asks you for money, alarm bells should start ringing immediately.

Catfishers are excellent storytellers and can tell a very convincing tale about why they need the money. They remain focussed on your emotions, so it’s vital to stay detached when money is at stake. It might be a small request at first – like the cost of a train ticket to come and see you – but typically, once they know you’re willing to give them cash, the frequency and amount will rise.

Never send money to anyone you haven’t met. If they’re genuine, they’ll understand.


Catfishing and social media

While a large amount of catfishing takes place on dating sites and apps, there are a large number of people who create fake social media accounts with the intention of catfishing others. There are several different types of social media catfish, including:

  • Accounts set up purely to harass others for revenge
  • Accounts set up to act as an individual, create relationships with others and scam money from them
  • Users who hack a friend or family member’s profile and pose as them. This is a scam that often happens on Facebook, where they’ll hack an account, use that person’s identity and message contacts about a financial emergency
  • Accounts set up purely to mimic a real person, whether it’s someone you know or a celebrity

There are a number of occasions where people may create catfish social media accounts simply because they want to hide their true identity, rather than for immoral reasons. These could be people who are unsure about their sexual preferences or have strong insecurities who feel that a fake identity gives them an outlet.

Spotting whether an account is a catfish is similar to on a dating app, but some telltale signs include:

  • Limited number of photos
  • Photos are ‘too perfect’
  • Few friends, connections or followers
  • No interaction on their posts, wall or feed

Some particularly savvy catfishes may set up fake social media accounts in tandem with a fake dating profile to appear more real in case their potential victims perform some basic searches.


How to spot a catfish

Yet, very few people know what to do to help minimise the risks of online dating. While some catfish scams cam be very sophisticated, you often don’t need to be an expert to recognise them. There are usually a number of warning signs to look out for when you’re interacting with someone new on a dating site or social media. Some of the telltale signs to help you spot a catfish include:

  • Their profile pictures are just that bit too ‘perfect’
  • They have very few additional photos and no sign of a social life
  • Things move very quickly to ‘love’ or get intense sooner than you’d expect
  • They’re reluctant to join a video chat or even phone calls
  • They’re even more reluctant to meet in real life
  • They find excuses to ask for money and they’ll start small, like for a train ticket to come and meet you. That train will get mysteriously cancelled and be non-refundable
  • They’ll ask for money and often make a lot of conversations come back to money
  • They’ve got a lot of very well practiced stories, but they don’t always add up
  • They ask a lot of very specific personal questions

If you’re seeing any of these red flags, then try a few of these tricks to help you uncover whether or not you’re dealing with a catfish.

  • Search the name of the individual on a search engine or social media, and then check their social media accounts and profiles to see how genuine they appear
  • Check their photos. Are they numerous and of good quality? If it’s just a handful of snaps with a mixture of quality you may want to be wary as they could be stolen or fake photos, rather than genuine personal photos
  • Perform a reverse image search of the pictures they are using too, to see whether they can be found elsewhere. Often a catfish may use someone else’s photos or stock imagery

These aren’t guaranteed to unmask a catfish, so keep your wits about you – they’re just quick ways that can help you spot any obvious fake identities. If you are entering a new relationship online it’s always best to be careful, whether it’s a romantic relationship or simply a new friend you’ve met through the internet.


What to do if you've been catfished

If you think you’ve been a victim of catfishing, there are a number of steps you may want to take. Catfishing can be quite insidious and may cause long term harm to your mental health, as well as your wallet. With this in mind, you may want to consider talking to friends and family or reaching out to a relevant charity.

If you are concerned that your money or financial information has been stolen, you should get in touch with the police and your bank. You can inform them of the situation and see whether there is anything they can do to help.

If you already have cybersecurity, like ESET, installed there are things that can be done proactively to protect you.


Preventing yourself and your family from being catfished

Preventing catfishing often sounds simpler than it actually is. Even the most savvy internet user can find themselves being tricked by a particularly good catfish. A number of ways you can protect yourself and your family from catfishes across dating apps and social media sites include:

  • Always be cautious when you’re talking to someone new online
  • Never send money or financial details to people you don’t know. Even if you do know them, try and talk to them by another method (like text or phone) before you share any money or information – there’s always a chance they’ve been hacked
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you’re unsure about something, there’s no harm in talking to friends or family. A second pair of eyes may spot something you don’t and help in identifying something risky
  • Install robust cybersecurity. Having a strong cybersecurity software installed, like ESET, can help considerably. It can block phishing links from suspect sources and supply additional privacy and security settings to keep you secure online. In addition to this you can install child protection to keep your children away from places they could be catfished
  • Update your dating site and social media account privacy settings. Keeping your social media accounts private and purely for friends and family can greatly improve your chances of avoiding people who create fake identities or impersonate another person online