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3rd October 2023

What is catfishing?

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Catfishing became big news after a documentary film of the same name was released. It opened up many people’s eyes to the concept of catfishing, how it worked and how common it was.

Simply put, catfishing is a type of fraud when a person pretends to be somebody else online in order to attract others. But it’s not a simple deception – it can be highly involved, with the fraudster spending weeks - even years - building up someone’s trust online.

The person doing the catfishing usually starts by either stealing someone’s identity or creating a totally fake identity. This is then used across social media channels, dating websites, online forums and other online platforms to deceive and manipulate others.

To build up this fake identity, they will use stolen or digital created photos, false personal information such as address and date of birth, and fabricating a false backstory.

The catfisher may then form romantic relationships, friendships, or engage in other forms of online interaction with the unsuspecting victims, who believe they are communicating with a genuine person.

Some of the most common reasons catfishers give for their actions include seeking attention, financial gain, emotional dissatisfaction with their own lives, and even revenge.

How common is catfishing?

In 2023, Barclays released data showing that over a third (36%) of British people have been targeted by romance scammers, or know someone that has.

However, the exact number of catfishing cases is hard to pin down as pretending to be someone else online is not technically illegal in the UK and many people don’t report people they believe might be catfishing.

In fact, research from CybSafe security experts show that over half of romance scams go unreported, with 17% of victims feeling too ashamed to report their experiences.

These incidents can range from relatively harmless pranks to more malicious activities involving emotional manipulation, sexual abuse and financial scams.

Of those that do make a report to the police, figures from Lloyds Bank show that people aged 51 to 60 are the group most likely to lose money in a romance scam, and men are the most common victims.

There has been a significant rise in men reporting catfishing incidences in recent years. Male victims only accounted for 39% of all reported romance scams in 2022. In 2023, this figure rose to 54%.

Why is it called catfishing?

Though the practise had already existed for years, the term ‘catfishing’ first appeared in a 2010 documentary film called "Catfish”.

The documentary followed an online relationship between photographer Nev Schulman and a woman named Megan. As the story unfolded, it was revealed that Megan's online identity was entirely fictional, and she was not the person she claimed to be.

In the film, the term ‘catfish’ was used by the catfisher’s husband to metaphorically describe his wife’s actions. It draws inspiration from a story where fishermen would put catfish into tanks of cod to keep the cod agile and prevent them from becoming lethargic and tasteless during transport.

The documentary and subsequent MTV television series brought the term into popular usage and the word ‘catfishing’ was officially recognised by the Oxford Dictionary in 2014.

How to tell if someone is catfishing you

Detecting whether someone is catfishing you can be challenging as they are usually skilled manipulators, capable at creating very believable online personas.

Here are some classic signs that can help you tell if someone is catfishing you:

1. They don’t have many friends or followers

Catfishers often maintain a limited social network presence with very few friends or followers on their profiles. This is because it's easier to manage and maintain a fake identity when there are fewer connections.

If you notice that their online presence lacks meaningful social interactions, it could be a warning sign that they’re a catfish.

2. Suspicious or professional photos

The cornerstone of any catfish profile is an album of attractive photos. However, they often use stolen or fake photos. To check whether the same photo is linked to a different name or profile, you can use reverse search tools like Google Images.

Another red flag to look for is if they only seem to share professional-looking photos. Most people will have a variety of photo styles, including casual selfies and informal photos with friends and family, so if they only have a handful of high-quality pictures to share: be wary.

3. They avoid phone or video calls

Catfishers often avoid phone or video calls, insisting on communicating solely through text messages or emails. They may claim to be ill and ashamed of their appearance, or pretend to be travelling or visiting someone.

If someone always has an excuse or keeps rescheduling your video chats, it could be they have something to hide.

4. Refusal to meet in person

Another catfishing red flag is an individual’s reluctance to meet in person. They may make continuous excuses to avoid it, or simply not turn up on the appointed day.

Legitimate individuals seeking genuine connections are typically open to face-to-face meetings. If they claim to live too far away for a meeting, suggest a video call. If they reject the idea, you’re probably being catfished.

5. Inconsistent stories

Catfishers often weave a tangled web of lies to create their fictional life stories. It can be hard for them to keep track of the details, so be on the lookout for inconsistencies in their background, job, family, or personal history.

If their narrative changes or it seems too good to be true, your should exercise caution.

6. Too much too soon

Catfishers tend to rush relationships and may come on very strong, very quickly.

Be wary if a person you’ve never met claims to be in love straight away or pushes for intimate information, as this could be a manipulation tactic.

7. Asking for money

The biggest sign you’re being catfished is if someone you’ve never met in person asks for money. They may share sob stories or use emotional manipulation to pressure you into help them out of a tricky situation.

You should never send money to someone you've only met online, no matter how close you may feel to them emotionally. If you’re unsure or feel conflicted, check with your bank or speak to a trusted friend or family member. Their distance from the situation will help you see things more clearly.

How to prevent catfishing

Before forming deep online connections, you should verify the identity of the person you're communicating with.

The easiest way to do this is with ukphonebook’s Person Identity Verification tool. Simply input the person’s name and postcode to check whether they’re a genuine person.

Preventing catfishing, however, involves a combination of verification, caution, and online safety practices. Here are some more ways you can protect yourself from catfishing:

  • Ask for a video call. Request a video call with your new online acquaintance. Genuine individuals should be willing to do this. If they refuse or keep rescheduling and making excuses, it’s likely they’re catfishing you.
  • Do some research. A simple Google search can reveal many inconsistencies in a catfishers story, so it’s a good idea to always research the people you meet online. For example, if they claim to live in a certain town, you can search the Electoral Roll or use our Find a Person search to see if their name is in that postcode area.
  • Run a reverse image search. Use Google tools to reverse search a person's pictures to check whether they’re real, stolen from someone else’s social profiles, or taken from a stock photo website.
  • Beware of red flags. Pay attention to the catfishing signs mentioned earlier, such as inconsistent stories, refusal to meet in person, and requests for money. If you encounter any of these warning signs, proceed with caution or consider ending the interaction.
  • Update your privacy settings. Adjust the privacy settings on your social media profiles to limit the information available to strangers. This can reduce your chance of becoming a target.
  • Trust your instincts. If something feels off or too good to be true, trust your gut. Don't ignore your intuition; it's a valuable tool in recognising potential catfishing attempts.
  • Don’t provide your details: If you’re unsure of who you’re talking to, never provide any personal details like phone numbers, address, date of birth or bank details. While they can’t do much with just your address, they can use all the details together to potentially create another fake identity.

If you want to learn more about fraud prevention, read our in-depth fraud protection and prevention guide.

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