What is Catfishing?

Catfishing theft

You’ve probably heard of “catfishing,” especially if you use social media accounts or dating websites. Catfishing is when a person pretends to be someone else to trick another person. People who catfish do so for many reasons, including trying to prove a partner is cheating, using it to scam someone, or using it to cyberstalk or cyberbully someone. Catfishing takes place on dating apps, social media profiles and in Craigslist ads.

Where Did “Catfish” Come From?

“Catfish” comes from an old fish story. The tale tells how fisherman used to have problems with cod becoming bored in captivity during the trip from Alaska to China. The lack of stimulation caused the fish to become stale. The solution to the problem was to put catfish into the tanks with the cod. The activity would stimulate the cod and therefore, improve the taste.

The shared story caused MTV’s Nev Schulman to coin the term “catfish” regarding dating scams. Schulman and his partner Max Joseph are on the TV show Catfish.

While the term may be modern, catfishing is nothing new. It has been present since AOL introduced its dating site, Love@AOL. Statistics suggest that 1 in 10 profiles on dating sites are fake.

How Catfishing Works

Catfishers use social media sites to trick others. They often use dating sites, although other social media websites like Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram are used to make people think they’re someone else. Here’s an example from a dating website.

Joan signs up on a dating website. She fills out her information and posts her picture. Joan receives messages almost immediately. Joan has high hopes for meeting new people. She looks at pictures and answers messages. It’s not long before Joan notices strange behavior from some of the men. Here are some things noticed by Joan:

Bad English

Many scammers are not native English speakers. One of the most common red flags is bad English. It’s obvious when you talk to a person who doesn’t know what words to use. Joan notices that they use the wrong words, can’t make full sentences, use the wrong tense, or confuse words like there, they’re, and their. In addition, non-English speakers don’t use contractions.

Profile Pictures

Joan gets messages from people that don’t have a profile picture. Sometimes there is a real reason for not posting a picture, such as his job, but it usually means that the person is married or not who he claims to be. If he is a real person, Joan can be assured that there will never be a meeting in real life, only online.

Some men look like movie stars. If a picture looks professional or familiar, chances are it’s fake. Do a reverse image search to find out if the person is real. You can upload the picture into an app or website and search.

The Catfishing Story

Scammers use the same stories over and over. Stories include the person losing his family in an accident, being stranded, or having lost his wife and being left with a young child. A catfisher will say anything to reel you in including garnering sympathy, playing on emotions, or making grand promises. However, if a story sounds familiar, copy and paste some of it into Google and read the results.

Moving Too Fast

Scammers want money…fast. When catfishing, people will say anything to gain your trust and steal from you as soon as possible. Poetry, gifts and words of love are some ways in which a scammer will try to win you over. If you respond to the gestures, the scammer will try harder to win you over.

The Scam

Once a catfisher has gained your trust, he will ask you for something. It starts with something small, such as a gift card. If you give what he is asking for, the next gift will be something bigger and grow larger with each request.

Why Do People Catfish?


People seek connection with others. This is especially true if someone lives alone. They create fake profiles out of insecurity. They may seek friendship or a romantic relationship.

Thrill Seekers

Catfishers are extroverts. They create fake profiles to get the thrill of the chase. The chance of getting caught heightens the emotion. Just like an adrenaline junkie craves bigger and more dangerous adventures, catfishers create grand facades and outrageous situations.


Revenge includes spying on someone or trying to pay someone back for a wrong they committed. It can also turn into cyberbullying or other criminal acts.


Greedy catfish are dangerous. They will do anything it takes to get money from unsuspecting victims.

Is Catfishing Illegal?

Catfishing isn’t illegal. However, some states are creating laws to target these scams. Unless a victim can prove identity theft or a violation of a website’s terms of service, there’s little recourse.

Catfishing Schemes

419 Nigerian Prince Scam

This scam is one of the oldest on the books. It often starts with email. The story started with the misfortunes of a Nigerian prince who needs to get out of the country. Sadly, he has no money and his passport is being held by the authorities. If you will send him money, he will pay you back tenfold when you meet. Another version is that a person (royal or not) is overseas and has no access to his or her money. No matter the story, the result is always the same. Catfishers who want money are the most persistent and can become threatening.

Romance Scam

This is a modern version of the mail order bride (or groom) scam. A fraudster looks for an American to marry. Although love blooms instantly, the scammer needs money for a new phone, a passport or travel expenses. The person may disappear for a while then resurface. S/he says there has been a terrible accident or illness. Money is needed for medical bills.

Business Opportunity

Scams involving romance are the most common. However, there are many scams involving fake business opportunities, such as rental properties, real estate, investments or jobs.  The scammer requires personal information to set up certain transactions. The scammer disappears once the information is collected.

Protect Yourself

Remember Joan? Joan is aware of catfishing and online scams. Fortunately, she reads a lot of articles about online dating and catfishing and has prepared herself. She immediately refuses all requests for money or gifts, blocks unknown callers from her phone, and insists on meeting in public.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, proceed with care and trust your intuition. If you have been catfished, immediately block all forms of contact from the scammer. Change passwords, and if necessary, bank account/credit card numbers, and PIN numbers. You should also report fraudulent activity to the service provider.