By Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the Mercury News
You may have heard about the horrible recent case where a man traveled from Virginia to Riverside, California, to meet with a teenage girl who he “catfished.” The girl, who was driven away by the suspect, was unharmed, and the suspect was killed in a shootout with police, but not before he had murdered three of the girl’s relatives. In a press release, the Riverside Police Department said the suspect, Austin Lee Edwards, “had met the female teenager through the common form of online deception known as ‘catfishing,’ where someone pretends to be a different person than they actually are. It is believed Edwards had developed an online relationship with the teen and obtained her personal information.”
Origins of ‘catfishing’
The term catfishing was popularized by a 2010 documentary film called Catfish, whose producer was in an online relationship with what he thought was an attractive young woman, only to later find out that person he was communicating with what not who she said she was and used another person’s photograph to represent herself. The producer, Nev Schulman, later hosted and produced an MTV series called Catfish: The TV Show. The term was derived from a quote from the original Catfish movie where someone says that having live catfish in the same tank as cod would keep the cod healthier when being transported. The metaphor may be based on a myth, but it caught on when the husband of the catfisher in Schulman’s film said, “There are those people who are catfish in life, and they keep you on your toes.”
Catfishing can result in disappointment and broken hearts, but — as in the case in Riverside — it can also end in tragedy. And there are a lot of other potential harms, including financial fraud, sextortion and, of course, predatory sexual behavior toward adults and minors.
In most cases, catfishing involves using a false identity to start an online relationship. It can occur in dating apps, on social media or via messaging or email.
What happens next depends on the skills of the catfisher and the vulnerability of the victim. In some cases, the relationship is strictly online and never results in any in-person meetings or exchange of money or favors. But it can be part of a financial scam, and there are cases where the catfisher and met up with and assaulted the victim.
Many people are targeted
I’ve never been a victim of catfishing, but — like many people — I’m pretty sure I’ve been targeted. I occasionally get text or WhatsApp messages or messages on social media with a picture of an attractive woman who says she wants to get to know me. I’m married and have no interest in an outside romantic relationship, but regardless, the chances of a stranger randomly messaging you with the serious intent of establishing a relationship or even going on a date are slim to none. That’s not the case on dating apps where the whole purpose is to meet new people, but it’s very likely the case when you get messages or emails from strangers.
Those “women” who are writing to me may or may not be female, but whoever they are, the picture they’re sending probably isn’t them, and their interest in me is far more likely to be related to scamming me out of money than engaging me in a real relationship.
If you do start communicating with a stranger online, even if it’s through a legitimate dating app, look for telltale signs. One of the main signs is the person avoiding a video call or an in-person meeting. Another sign is them not having an online presence or — if they have a social media account — very few friends or followers or an account that was recently set up.
You can’t always tell if their picture is them or someone else, but sometimes they look too good to be true, or the photo looks like it was professionally taken. You can try a reverse image search on Google or another service which may — or may not — reveal if it’s a professional picture, possibly of a model. On Google, go to images.google.com, click on the camera icon and upload the photo. If it’s a stock image, it might tell you where it came from, but don’t rely on this. It could be a photo of the catfisher’s friend or relative or something they downloaded from someone else’s social media profile.
Be very suspicious if the person asks for money or sexually explicit or suggestive pictures or videos. Years ago, I got a call from a friend who told me he’d been chatting online with a woman from the Philippines who asked him for money so she could buy a plane ticket to visit him. Fortunately, he heeded my advice and cut “her” off.
Sextortion schemes are increasingly common. The person might offer to send you an intimate image of themself in exchange for one of you. Once they get your picture, they might threaten to post it online or send it to your friends and family if you don’t send them money. The picture they send you is probably one they downloaded, and that “person” could very well be part of an organized crime scheme in a foreign country, which makes it very hard for US authorities to catch and prosecute them.
If you do meet up with someone
Again, there are legitimate dating services, and there could be times when you have had a long-term online relationship via social media with mutual friends, and you do want to meet that person in real life. If so, please follow the advice in ConnectSafely’s Quick-Guide to Online Dating, including:
- Make sure the first meeting is in a public place, like a restaurant.
- Let others know where you’re going to be.
- Bring your fully charged cell phone and keep in contact with a friend during the date.
- Limit your use of alcohol or drugs.
- Arrange your own transportation to and from the first meeting.
- Consider using a tool from the service or a third party (like URSafe) that can help protect you during the date by tracking your location and allowing you to get help easily without having to make a call.
- Resist any pressure to go home with the person or invite them into your home during that first date.
As with many aspects of internet safety, a bit of critical thinking can go a long way toward protecting you against catfishing and other scams.