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Catfishing—when online identities are deceptive, and may have claws

You’re talking to someone online, yet how do you know they’re who they say they are? A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words, but pictures can easily be fakes. For example, she may say she’s Bianca, 21, a student from Washington, but what if behind the screen before you is actually George, a pro scammer from Boston? It’s easy to fall victim to the online scam of catfishing. Yet what is catfishing precisely and what are the pitfalls should you fall victim? Learn how to recognize a catfish if it swims its way into your digital world and protect yourself from the increased number of catfishing scams.

From online dating to social media and business networks, we live in times where it’s common to interact with people online. In fact, we’ve been taught this makes us good networkers! Yet how do we know that anyone is who they say they are? We don’t. ‘Catfishing’ is when a person takes information and images that aren’t their own and uses them to create a new identity for themselves. The ‘catfish’ or ‘catfisher’ refers to whoever is casting the hook. In some cases, the catfish steals another individual’s entire identity, including their photo, date of birth, and geographical location. They then use this fake digital life to trick other people into engaging with them online—this could be romantic, a friendship, or even the start of a new business deal.

Who are catfishers and why do they do it?

There are many reasons people may turn to cat fishing. Not all are malicious, but none are good. Some catfish may be lonely or have a low self-esteem and their new identity represents who they wish they could be. If they come across as more attractive and successful, they feel they may make more friends and be more popular. Other catfish may have a mental illness and suffer from depression and anxiety. By assuming another identity, they gain the confidence they lack in real life.

Before you feel too sorry for catfishers, remember: Their intentions can also be malicious! They can use their fake identities to bully, harass, blackmail their victims and carry out catfishing scams. When people are lured into artificial relationships, they sometimes divulge sensitive information which the catfish can use against their victim by embarrassing them or threatening to destroy their reputation. Plus, when no one knows who you really are, it’s easier to commit crimes or troll people on social media or discussion boards. If the person decides to act against the catfish, they usually can’t even give authorities the real identity of the bully or scammer. Anonymity spells freedom and safety for catfish.

Explore the catfish hall of fame with these catfishing examples

The term ‘catfishing’ was first coined in a 2010 documentary on the subject by filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, as they filmed the life of Ariel’s brother and catfish victim, Nev. And did you know that there’s a woman whose face has allegedly launched a thousand catfishing scams? Countless catfish have stolen the model’s online images over the years and even used them to launch a Facebook page. This garnered many fans and was used to help scam people—such as by persuading them to hand over money for plane tickets.  Possibly one of the most famous catfish of online dating is Simon Leviev, who was convicted of theft, forgery, and fraud. According to The Times of Israel, between 2017 and 2019, he allegedly conned an estimated $10 million from victims across Europe by using fake Tinder profiles.

Yet is catfishing illegal and therefore punishable? Currently, catfishing itself is not illegal but some activities it could include may be covered by different parts of the law. For example, if a victim loses money to a catfish, the catfish could be prosecuted for fraud. Also, if someone uses a fake profile to post offensive messages or doctored images meant to humiliate, they could also face criminal action. There is still an ongoing discussion about whether stronger laws are needed, particularly against serial catfish.  This article in The Guardian argues that the law must get tough on online dating scams.

Look out for these red flags waving in the breeze as you surf

Friend or foe? Use this handy checklist to help pick out a catfish from genuine online friends and business connections. If one or more of these holds true, beware, Things could be fishy…

  • They avoid calls or video calls

“I can’t talk today. Something’s just come up! Again”.  If someone refuses to engage with you via a phone call or video chat, they may be trying to stop you from seeing how they really look or hearing what they really sound like.  Typically, catfishers will invent excuse after excuse as to why they can’t connect. They’re suddenly busy, travelling or say they’re ashamed of how they look due to an illness. If you’ve never seen or heard them in real life, beware!

  • Their pictures never change

“I’ve looked 23 for 10 years!”. A catfisher usually only has access to a certain number of fake photos for their new identity. If their profile picture never changes and they keep recycling the same few old shots, be careful. You may also notice that they don’t age in their profile photos because the shots are usually stolen at the same time.

  • They don’t ever want to meet up

A face-to-face meeting is every catfisher’s worst nightmare. If they live nearby, suggest a meeting in a public place. If they repeatedly refuse, consider ending the online relationship. If they live further away, suggest a video call, and re-read point one above!

  • Their lies don’t always make sense

There’s a reason we’re not all cut out to be spies. It’s hard to flawlessly maintain another identity. A careless catfisher will eventually slip up and say the wrong thing, or not know something they should. If they claim, for example, to be from a certain high school but don’t know anything about the town or school, then you know that something isn’t right.

  • They want your money

If your online contact asks for money or gifts, chances are high that you’re being catfished. Refuse their requests for money or a gift and break off contact. This may be hard to do if you’ve already invested time and emotion in the relationship, but it’s the safest course of action. If you send money, it will most likely disappear along with the catfisher—or they’ll simply request more.

If you have children, this family education site is packed with useful tips on how to protect against catfishing.

What to do if you’re catfished?

So, you’ve applied the tips above and have decided that you might be dealing with a catfisher? Act fast! Cut all ties with them immediately and leave no digital stone unturned. Block them on your social media accounts and report them to the site admin. Also, stop all payments you may have made to them, and contact the authorities, as well as banks and any relevant third parties if you suspect that you may be a victim of identity theft.

If you’re based in the UK and need advice and help on how to deal with cybersecurity issues like catfishing, contact This organization is staffed with volunteers, and you can ‘speak’ to them via the chatobot or fill in the form.

Avira helps keep you safer online

Did you know that Avira has more than 35 years of online security experience? Its portfolio of products and services is meticulously and continuously updated so that we can all benefit from the latest security and online privacy enhancements.

Yet when it comes to helping to protect your data, finances, and yourself from potential online scammers, remember that prevention is better than the cure: Be hyper-vigilant with online connections and never share passwords or confidential information, even with someone you trust! If you think your accounts have been compromised, change your passwords as soon as possible. Consider Avira Password Manager, which generates strong, unique passwords for you and can automatically log you in to your online accounts. The Pro version also checks for weak or reused passwords and notifies you if an online account has been hacked so you can take steps to help protect yourself.

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Avira, a company with over 100 million customers and more than 500 employees, is a worldwide leading supplier of self-developed security solutions for professional and private use. With more than 25 years of experience, the company is a pioneer in its field.