Have you ever talked to someone online who was too perfect? Too suave? Too mysterious? Too elusive? Have you ever wondered if they were too good to be true? Or — like me — have you simply spent too much time watching Nev Shulman track down people who lie online?
Catfishing is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as the act of luring someone into a relationship via a false online persona. Looking into the strange phenomenon that is catfishing is fascinating and concerning. With the expansion of the internet and the growing culture of social media, the amount of people you interact with online is only increasing. Chances of being lied to or exploited have kept up with this growth: Pew Research Center found in 2018 that over half of people who date online have felt that someone has seriously misrepresented themselves on their profile.
Many online dating sites have put safeguards in place to hopefully diminish the proliferation of catfishing on their sites. Bumble has developed “photo verification,” in which a user provides an image of themselves doing an assigned gesture that is later reviewed by a real person on staff. Tinder has a similar feature which results in a user being “verified” with a blue checkmark placed next to their names.
These measures don’t stop everything, unfortunately. While some catfishing instances are elaborate financial scams, others are meant to simply foster relationships with no intention of ever moving it offline. For these latter types of relationships, some have proposed that they’re a manifestation of attachment styles — those with high anxiety and high avoidance could feel safer and more in control in an online relationship with no real-world implications (at least on their end). Self-identified catfishes have reported a wide range of reasons for catfishing, from loneliness to desire to an urge to explore their gender and/or sexuality. People who tested with high avoidance styles were 98% more likely to identify themselves as perpetrators of catfishing scams than those who demonstrated low avoidance styles.
So who’s at risk? In short, well … everybody is. One survey found that 43% of men have reported being catfished and 28% of women — neither of which are insignificant numbers. Another survey found that of people who have been involved with catfishing — whether perpetrator or target — men are more likely to be the perpetrators of online dating deception than women; women are 50% more likely to be victims.
While perpetrators of dating deception schemes do so for their own gain, it doesn’t mean that the people on the other end of these situations come out unscathed. A neuropsychologist, Dr. Sanam Hafeez, explained in an interview with Bustle that being “betrayed” can lead to hypervigilance and difficulty trusting when moving forward.
Being lied to or “tricked” can also be embarrassing, so some people may not reach out for support when they need it. This can be detrimental, as the best way to heal from the emotional hurt that catfishing causes, according to Dr. Kelly Campell, is to surround yourself with a support system. It doesn’t always end with emotional harm though. A 2013 report from the Federal Trade Commission cited $105 million dollars lost from romance scams online.
Unfortunately, the harms of catfishing extend beyond just the specific individuals involved. Those who get their pictures used to catfish others also reap material consequences. In one example, a man named Matt McCarthy alleges that he had his pictures co-opted and used on a dating platform that facilitates affairs. When data from the site was leaked, McCarthy’s reputation in his career field began to suffer. A 2014 CareerBuilder survey suggested that 43% of employers look at their applicants' online activity. For someone whose face is being exploited, catfishing can have real-world consequences.
None of this means that you cannot be safe online. It only means that being aware of who you’re interacting with should be a priority. Looking for red flags on social media accounts (such as a very low or very high follower count) and meeting the person behind the profile’s pictures to verify their identity (via Facetime or “irl”) are common safety measures. If you’re in a crunch and feeling sleuthy, you can also implement one of MTV Catfish’s favorite strategies — reverse image search! If you’ve been catfished, make sure to reach out to friends and family and find support systems to minimize detrimental effects of such behavior. Take time for yourself and a step back from social media. The FBI reports that 18,000 people were catfished online in 2018 — you are not alone.