How to Identify a Catfish (and Protect Your Money)

by Alex J. Coyne
How to Identify a Catfish photo

These catfish don’t taste good, but they can cost you money. Take these steps to identify a catfish and keep them from your hard-earned cash.

Catfishing refers to the practice of hooking someone into an online relationship with a false persona or profile. Why? Beyond some who do it for emotional or vengeful reasons, catfishing often has a bigger goal, namely cash. 

Anyone Online Can Be Vulnerable to Catfishing

The term “catfish” originates from a 2010 film by the same name which shows photographer Nev Schulman’s online relationship and eventual meeting with “Megan,” who turns out to have been entirely fictional.

Even celebrities have fallen prey to catfishers. NFL player Manti Te’o was shocked to find out, after her supposed death, that his online girlfriend Lennay Kekua never existed.

In a bizarre piece of news, even ISIS got catfished out of $3,300, believing that the three women on the other end of the screen would use the money to make their way to Syria.

Catfishing in Numbers

According to research by the Pew Research Center, 15% of American adults have used some form of online dating, either via a mobile app or a dating site. According to another survey conducted by FreeDating, 54% of users asked said that they believed other people had contributed false information in their profiles.

It’s hard to tell just how much catfishing scams are costing those in the US, but losses are estimated into millions of dollars. By comparison, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission notes that dating scams cost Australians Aus$55 million in 2015.

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How to Identify a Catfish

Facebook user Maureen has had a catfish attempt to friend her. “I always reverse Google a person’s profile picture before accepting their friend request.” Maureen says. This helps weed out fake profiles that source their profile pictures from elsewhere on the internet. “Also,” she notes, “if there aren’t many photos or friends on their profile, chances are it’s a catfish.”

Lasting online relationships are a thing, but so are catfishers, so watch out for these signs:

  • Take a close look at profiles before responding to messages or accepting friend requests. Scammers often have fake profile pictures sourced from someone else (or no picture at all) and very few friends or followers. See the guide from Lifewire.com on how to spot a fake friend request.
  • Catfish scammers make use of sympathy or sudden, unrequited love as a way to gain an “in” with the victim. Be careful of declarations of love from someone who friended you ten minutes ago or declarations of troubles to gain your sympathy. Some scammers will use illness or injury as an excuse.
  • Watch out for the actual scam. The catfish scammer is quick to ask the victim for money. Reasons vary from needing money to go and see the victim through needing money to pay medical bills. Victims can be strung along like this for months with the amounts adding up to thousands over time.
  • Catfish scammers are known for their reluctance to actually meet the victim in person, even when a meeting is arranged. Like the requests for money, the excuses will keep piling up.

How to Report a Catfish

If you suspect a potential catfish scammer, don’t send them a cent. Instead, you can report it to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). Additionally, many social networking and dating sites allow you to report a profile as being fake or run by a scammer.

Reviewed August 2020

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