If you’re like me (and I know I am), you may not pay all that much attention to sports. However, lately it seems almost impossible to ignore the story of Manti Te’o, the Notre Dame linebacker and Heisman trophy candidate who was propelled to infamy when the dramatic, too-good-to-be-true story of the death of his girlfriend proved to be a complete fabrication.
Now, while the jury still seems to be out on whether Te’o was duped by Internet pranksters or helped create the fictional persona in order to boost his visibility and garner the sympathy vote for the Heisman… but ultimately it does highlight just how much the Internet has redefined the definition and nature of our relationships with other people. We have connections and friendships – genuine, meaningful ones – with people we may never have interacted with in the flesh but speak to in a variety of mediums on a daily basis… and therein lies the potential for deceit. The old New Yorker cartoon that “nobody on the Internet knows you’re a dog” applies equally to “On the Internet, nobody knows if you’re real or not”.
Many, many people from all walks of life have been suckered into deceptive “relationships”, either with people who disguise their identities in order to seem more appealing or who create new personas out of whole cloth. If you want to avoid getting catfished – named after the popular documentary1, you need to know how to spot a faker.
Who Are The Catfish?
It’s tempting to assume that everyone who creates a fake persona online is a basement-dwelling cretin with a face for radio and a brain for social engineering who creates a fake persona to woo others because he or she knows that nobody could possibly love the “real” identity, but the truth is far more complicated than that. While many catfish are love-lorn and socially maladjusted – whether through crippling shyness, low self-esteem or other social and psychological ills – many others look to create fake identities for the lulz or to test out new identities… and some have more sinister purposes.
Some catfish aren’t malicious so much as misguided and afraid – they have feelings and emotions that they want to express but feel that there’s something about them that holds them back. This is especially true amongst gay and transgendered individuals who have adopted fake identities online; they don’t have any malicious intent, they just fear the rejection (or in many cases, actual physical danger) that could come from confessing their feelings directly to the object of their affection.
It can be intoxicating when an otherwise “impossible” love feels attainable, even when it’s built on a lie; having to admit to the deception would not only ruin the “relationship” (and thus kill the dream) but also quite possibly torpedo any relationship from the “real” world.
Some people just want to be the focus of everybody’s world and don’t care how they do it. These fakers tend to inhabit forums and social networks and try to scam large groups rather than individuals. Many of them will actually employ entire networks of faked identities and sock-puppets in order to maintain the fiction of their existence. In one epic case, an individual known as MsScribe created over twelve separate identities in order to (I shit you not) take over a Harry Potter fanfic community on LiveJournal.
(Truly, internet politics is the fiercest, bitterest of politics because the stakes are so, so very low…)
Attention seekers live for drama; they will establish any number of horrible events in their lives in order to justify their behavior and keep the attention squarely on them where it belongs. Some will go so far as to fake their own deaths, just to keep the sympathy train rolling.
Manipulators and Abusers
Some folks get their jollies from manipulating others emotionally; they love to keep their victims off balance by constantly blowing hot and cold. They’re the emotional equivalent of a rickety roller-coaster – their moods soar and plummet unpredictably and forever feel like they’re just about to go flying out of control. They use sudden bouts of jealousy and anger to keep the victim constantly seeing their forgiveness and approval and get incredibly lovey-dovey to keep them sweet – often making over-the-top gestures like sending dozens of roses to their “beloved’s” place of work. These fakes have all of the earmarks of an emotionally abusive relationship – just without the physical presence to go with it.
Amusingly, the Nora Ephron movie “You’ve Got Mail” (based off of the 1937 play Parfumerie - which makes catfishing older than you’d think) actually treats this as an amusing lark that’s justified because it’s in the name of love.
Some people create these fake identities for their own amusement. They’re in it for shits and giggles – preferably at somebody else’s expense. After all, if tragedy is when I cut my finger and comedy is when you fall down a manhole and die, what could be funnier than convincing some poor lonely-heart that there is a love out there for them… right before yanking the dream out from under them and leaving them to wallow in freakish misery? This is a surprisingly common form of cyber-bullying- creating false profiles on Facebook and Twitter in order to taunt classmates and supposed “friends”.
Some of the most visible cases of catfishing come from would-be pranksters. Manti Te’o is the current and most famous example; much of the evidence seems to point that he was duped by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, an acquaintance of his. The infamous /b/, a subforum of 4chan, decided to take things to another level by creating an involuntary “Forever Alone” flashmob.
Members created fake profiles on OKCupid and other dating sites to woo unsuspecting singles, Nice Guys and other supposed “undesirables” to a specific location in Time’s Square at 7:30 PM on May 13th, 2011 – which happened to be location of a publicly accessible webcam stream. The trolls would watch with glee as the horde of confused single guy descended upon the location, only to find out that they had all been duped.
(Spoiler alert: the prank didn’t go off as planned. According to at least one report, only 3 people were confirmed to be dupes, rather than the hordes of suckers.)
Online dating can be a goldmine for scam artists. The majority of people on dating sites are genuinely trusting and generous souls – so naturally there will be predators looking to take advantage of them. It’s sadly not uncommon for lonely people – especially those who may not be terribly socially experienced – to be targeted by clever scammers who strike up an online relationship and proceed to fish for money. Things may be going swimmingly until, alas, their Internet beloved has just lost her job… and her rent is due! Or they’ve suddenly experienced a major health emergency. Or they’ve been mugged and they’re stranded or… the list of perfectly valid reasons why they need money goes on and on.
A variation of this scam is the “Foreign women want to meet YOU!” caper; a dating agency proposes to put you in contact with various women from foreign countries2 - usually Eastern European but not always – who are looking for American or European boyfriends and husbands. You’ll get photos, emails, maybe even a phone call or two and she’s starting to fall in love with you and is dying to meet you… but suddenly, drama strikes! They want to come see you but they need money for a visa and they just can’t afford it. Or the passport fees. Or the tickets. Or she needs to show proof that she has the means to travel in order to get a travel visa and could you please wire her $5000…
Of course, this all seems perfectly reasonable. After all, how could you deny such a sweet, wonderful woman who only wants to please you? What kind of monster wouldn’t send the money? And yet every time one hurdle has been cleared, another one appears – and once again, can only be solved by money. It’s a never-ending hamster wheel and you’re the emotionally manipulated rodent.
Who Falls For This, Anyway?
It’s incredibly tempting to believe that this could never happen to you. After all, you’re savy! You’re smart! It’s only gullible fools who get caught up by fakers like this.
There’s a reason why con artists love smart marks. There’s nobody easier to fool than somebody who’s convinced that they’re immune to being fooled – and everybody likes to believe they can spot a fake or a con a mile away. And yet, the people who have been catfished come from just about every possible age, gender and group. Manti Te’o – a college football star, someone who presumably could have his pick of available women – was suckered in by a (fake) pretty face and a clever line of drama… and he’s hardly the only one. Four members of the Washington Redskins were all deceived by the same “woman”, as were a number of other professional athletes and entertainers. And of course, filmmaker Nev Schulman was3 infamously conned while filming the documentary on a supposed 8-year old child prodigy.
Women are no less likely to fall for the scam than men; the blog 52 First Dates documents several women who were all scammed by one “Sebastian Pritchard Jones”, while many others were defrauded by a young woman posing as Elijah Wood’s male cousin.
Age also makes little difference; middle-aged men and women, especially those who are less technologically savvy, are often targeted specifically by scammers. A friend of mine has had to deal with her father constantly falling in lust with various fake Svetlanas, Irinas and Tatyanas – all of whom would love to meet him in person if it weren’t for that pesky bureaucratic red-tape that only $3,000 can cut through.
All it takes is the willingness to believe that someone – often someone incredibly physically attractive – is romantically interested in us, that they’ve seen past any of our flaws (or even like them) and see to the beauty of our inner selves. It preys on something that we want to believe because of what it says about us.
We want to trust them because… well, we like how it makes us feel, dammit! We instinctively like people who like us and make us feel good. We don’t want to believe that this person who makes us feel special is lying to our virtual faces… which makes it all the easier for them to fool us.
If You Haven’t Met In Person, You’re Not Actually Dating
Yes, the Internet has revolutionized how we interact with others, and it challenges our old notions of just what a relationship is… but no matter how much we may talk about soulmates and the meeting of minds, love isn’t just mental. Love has a very physical component as well – it’s not just jokes and emotional connections, it’s pheromones and sweat, the smell of their hair and the electric charge of skin on bare skin. You may have profound emotional and intellectual chemistry and compatibility over text, phone and Skype, but you cannot excise physical chemistry from the equation or pretend that it is somehow lesser because it’s so base and primitive. We are physical beings in the end and we live in meatspace; even the most passionate intellectual relationship can founder upon the rocks of a lack of sexual attraction when you meet in person.
I’m not saying that relationships can’t start online – in fact, this spring I will be marrying two friends of mine who met through a comic book forum – but until you have met in the flesh, you aren’t actually dating.
How To Spot A Catfish
Spotting a faked identity is equal parts instinct and research. Some fakers are of the painfully obvious “Hello, I am $RICH_PERSON from Nigeria and I want to employ you, random Internet person, in my money-laundering scheme” style; the scammers behind these are trying to dynamite fish for suckers and only want the most gullible. Others will have put considerably more time and effort into their fake identities and making them seem “real”. None of these tips are going to be 100% effective in ferreting out a fake profile – some fakes are extremely good – but in combination, these will help keep you from being gulled.
Google Image Search Is Your Friend
Most catfish rely on stolen photos for their profiles. Many will scour popular sites like DeviantArt or ModelMayhem to find attractive stand-ins, while some – notably Foreign Bride brokers – will use photos of known porn-stars. Others will steal photos from unlocked Facebook and Instagram accounts – as appears to be the case of “Lennay Kekua”, Manti Te’o's fake girlfriend – in order to create a more authentic feel.
Using these photos, however, is often their greatest Achilles’ heel; because these photos came from other websites, it’s possible to trace them back to their origin. Google now allows for reverse image searches – simply drag a .jpg or .gif to the search bar and you can track down where else those photos appear online. Firefox, Opera and Chrome all have extensions that make reverse image searching a simple click away in your browser.
This isn’t foolproof: some scammers will use a third party as an (sometimes unwitting) accomplice – as with Diane O’Meara, the “face” as it were of Lennay Kekua – for custom photos that don’t appear anywhere else online. But if you suspect a catfish situation, Reverse Image Search should be the first thing you check.
Check Their Social Media Presence
In this day and age, the number of people who don’t have a presence on social networks are vanishingly small – and the younger they are, the more likely they are to have an extensive one. If you harbor suspicions, start to examine their online accounts. Does he or she have a Facebook page? If so, how many friends do they have? How many posts and photos have they been tagged in? What have they liked, what timelines have they written on? Not being wildly active or having few Facebook friends is not damning evidence by any stretch – not everybody is a digital social butterfly after all – but it can be a cause for suspicion, especially if their friends are predominantly single members of their preferred gender.
Similarly, check their Twitter feed – who do they follow, who follows them, how many people to they converse with and how many hashtags and trending topics do they take part in?
Yes, this can feel like stalking behavior, but you are allowed – encouraged even – to do your due diligence on the people who you presumably care about.
As more and more of our lives are lived online, it’s increasingly difficult to not leave traceable footprints behind. A slim Google profile may not mean much – many of my childhood friends don’t have much presence if you just search their names – but may of the provided details of their lives should be easily found. Some high-schools and colleges have publicly searchable alumni lists and even yearbooks. If they have an especially notable or unusual career – many a young man has had his heart broken by a supposed “model” – it should be easy to find information about them online. If not the individual specifically then their employer, organizations that they may belong to, etc.
(This, incidentally, is why it’s a good idea to occasionally Google yourself; you should curate what information there is about you online.)
Skype Is Your Next Best Friend
Some catfish will refuse to talk on the phone, preferring to text. Others have no problem speaking on the phone…. but this ultimately proves nothing. If you suspect a catfish, you need to get them on camera.
We are now at the point where it is entirely reasonable to expect that most of the people we interact with online have access to a webcam and video-conferencing software. Skype is the most obvious (and free!) example, but Adium, Message, Trillian, Meebo, G-chat and Yahoo all offer video chatting as well as instant messaging. Tiny Chat, StickCam and Google+ Hangouts also allow video conferencing. Even most smartphones also have video chat capabilities now; the iPhone has Facetime and Skype while Android phones have Skype, Fring and Google Talk.
So frankly, if your Internet sweetie can’t or won’t Skype with you, it’s a cause for potential concern.
If you’re especially un-trusting, you can always call or IM them (or arrange for a friend to do so, off cam) in the middle of your cam session.
Beware of the Drama Bomb
One of the most frequent signs of a catfish is a high drama quotient. Many fake profiles and identities are rife with histrionics and melodramatic goings on – family members who come down with dramatic diseases or even die, spectacular accidents, conveniently timed job losses, fights with dear friends, vengeful exes – in order to better take advantage of their audience’s compassion and encourage White Knight-ery. These splashy incidents also serve as convenient distractions to divert suspicion. Are you starting to ask probing questions? Time to kill of gradma! Now you’re an insensitive cad for daring to interrogate her during her time of need.
He who lives by the drama however, dies by the drama. Google once again is your friend; major incidents such as traffic accidents, muggings, assaults and even deaths get documented and logged online. Newspaper crime blotters, incident reports and obituaries are all searchable now and easily found with some basic Google-Fu.
If someone in your life is having constant issues in his or her life – especially if they occur at opportune moments, keeping them from meeting you in person or distracting you from a fight – it’s time to be suspicious. Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is somebody bullshitting you. Your mantra should always be trust… but verify.
Are They Too Good To Be True?
This can be the hard one because we desperately want to believe that the Danish supermodel with the incredible rack who also happens to love 3rd Ed. D&D and Tennant-era Dr. Who thinks we’re sexy and wants to date us. We all want to believe that someone so amazing could fall in love with our minds and hearts long before they encounter the too, too flawed flesh that we inhabit. And while that can and does happen… well, to be perfectly honest, it ain’t worth betting the house (or your heart) on.
Catfish prey on the fact that we all believe we’re special and that our beauty may well lie deep within rather than on the surface and the hope that someday somebody incredible will see that. They go out of their way to embody that fantasy; they create an illusion so compelling that you become complicit in your own defrauding because you desperately want it to be true.
You have to be honest with yourself: why would this person suddenly fall for you so quickly – and catfish tend to move very fast. Is it possible that this is too convenient, too perfect? If so, you owe it to yourself to check. If it’s real, then your Internet sweetie should have no problem with your investigating; presumably they have nothing to hide.
If they get offended and indignant that you don’t trust them, then it should be a warning to you that something may not be as it seems.