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What is Catfishing Online: Signs & How to Tell

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What is Catfishing?

Catfishing refers to when a person takes information and images, typically from other people, and uses them to create a new identity for themselves. In some cases, a catfisher steals another individual’s complete identity—including their image, date of birth, and geographical location—and pretends that it is their own. The catfisher then uses this identity to trick other people into associating with them or doing business online.

In some cases, a single person is targeted for a catfishing attack. In these instances, a catfisher may develop an identity that they feel will appeal to their catfishing target. Catfishing has long been common in online dating forums and websites. Because the catfisher can hide any or all of their true identity without being questioned, people would often fake certain aspects of their profile to lure in their targets. This often includes using a profile picture they stole from someone else to appear more attractive. 

The catfish meaning also often includes falsifying professions, locations, and likes and dislikes. When someone only fakes a few or relatively insignificant elements of their identity, it is referred to as kitten fishing.

Why Is It Called Catfishing?

The practice of catfishing online has been around for many years, simply because it is so easy to falsify your identity on the internet. The term “catfish” became popular after a documentary named Catfish was released in 2010. Afterward, MTV launched a TV series called “Catfish” in 2012.

How Does Catfishing Relate to Cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying involves repeated attempts to embarrass, humiliate, or harm someone using online resources. Catfishing is therefore a form of cyberbullying because the target is harmed as the catfisher plays games with their mind. 

In addition, catfishing often involves luring people into artificial relationships to learn information the attacker can use against the victim. Once they have enough information to embarrass the target or attempt to destroy their reputation, they release the information given to them in trust.

Cyberbullies make a habit of using the emotions of their targets against them. This is often accomplished by identifying a physical trait, aspect of their personal history, or something that makes them feel depressed, scared, or sad. The catfisher then uses this against their victim. Catfishers also tend to target people who are lonely or have expressed a need for a romantic relationship, whether online or in person. Abusing these vulnerabilities puts catfishing in the cyberbullying category.

Why Do People Catfish?

People catfish for a number of reasons. Some do not involve malicious intent, while others directly seek to harm specific people. Some of the primary reasons behind catfishing include:

  1. Insecurity: If a catfisher feels bad about who they are in real life, they may try to create an identity that conforms more closely to what they wish they could be. This often includes using photos of someone they feel is better-looking than them. They may also pretend to have a successful career to experience how it feels to be admired for their “accomplishments.” Catfishers who assume attractive identities may also be trying to garner a lot of “friends” and attention online to feel more popular.
  2. Concealing their identity: There are several reasons why people want to conceal their identity online. When no one knows who you are, it is easier to troll people on discussion boards because of the lack of repercussions. Some people intend to cheat on their spouse or significant other and feel the best way to get away with it is to falsify their identity. In other instances, a person hides their identity to extort money from someone else. If the person figures out the scam, they cannot tell authorities who the attacker is because of the catfisher's false persona.
  3. Mental illness: In some cases, people who suffer from depression or chronic anxiety may choose to get involved in catfishing. As they assume another person’s identity, they gain the confidence they need to associate with others and live what they feel is a more “normal” online life. With a more attractive, successful, or gregarious identity, they get a self-esteem boost whenever they engage with others online.
  4. Revenge: Some catfishers seek revenge on the person they are impersonating. They use the person’s name and face and create an online identity. Then they say or do things online that make the person look bad—or even get involved in illegal activity in the target’s name.
  5. Experimenting with sexual preferences: Some catfishers use the practice to explore their sexual identities. They assume the sexual preference they are interested in online, using an identity different from their own. As they engage in social interactions under that identity, they get a sense of how it would feel to live that lifestyle full-time.
  6. To harass their target: When someone has been trying to stalk, bother, or pursue someone online, the target often blocks the aggressor on one or more social media platforms. When this happens, the attacker may use catfishing to continue their pursuits. Even though the victim does not know who they are interacting with, the catfisher, once accepted as a friend or follower, is still able to see the target’s posts and pictures. In this way, they can keep tabs on what they are doing, when, and with whom.

A common thread among many of the reasons why people catfish is an absence of self-confidence. When people are either personally dissatisfied with themselves or feel their real identity is not good enough to accomplish a certain objective, they may assume another “self” to feel better or attain the desired result. 

In other cases, the catfisher lacks the self-confidence needed to express themselves openly, but under the guise of a false identity, they feel they can be who they want to be.

How To Tell If You're Being Catfished: 7 Possible Signs

What does it mean to be catfished? It can be hard to tell when you are being catfished, particularly if the catfisher’s profile is detailed and thorough. However, if you notice any of the seven following signs, you may be the victim of a catfishing scam.

1. They Do Not Have Many Friends or Followers

Catfishers often do not have many friends or followers on their accounts. This is due to a few different reasons. First, the account is typically created for a specific reason: to catfish a particular target. They may only use the account for that purpose but use their real social media accounts for more genuine interactions. Therefore, they may not invest the time needed to populate their catfishing account with friends or followers. 

Often, to gain connections on social media, a user has to self-market, reach out to others, view posts, and like online content or follow profiles. This may take considerable time, and a catfisher may not invest the time and energy to generate enough followers for the account to look “real.”

Another reason is to reduce the chances of being caught. The more friends or followers a catfisher has, the more questions may be asked regarding their identity, their profession, or their location. Each query could result in a slip-up, so limiting the number of contacts helps mitigate the catfisher’s risk.

The risk of getting discovered is also increased when the catfisher has more friends because accepting a friend suggestion verifies a connection made by the social media site's algorithm. For example, if Facebook recommends someone as a friend, it may be because they live in your area or went to the same school. If a catfisher only changed how they looked or a few other basic elements of their identity, someone who knows how the suggestion algorithm generally works could figure out they are not who they say they are. Therefore, the fewer friends a catfisher has, the smaller the chances of them being discovered.

2. They Never Want To Call/Video Call

If someone refuses to video chat or engage in a phone call, they may be trying to keep you from seeing how they really look or hearing what they really sound like. In most cases, the catfisher will invent excuses as to why they cannot talk or video chat. 

For example, each time you agree to a time to connect, something comes up, or they claim their schedule is inundated with appointments. They may also pretend to be ashamed of how they look due to a serious illness, such as cancer. Another excuse may be they are traveling or in the middle of visiting family. Regardless of the excuse provided, repeated rejections of a visual or aural meetup may indicate you are being catfished.

3. Their Profile Picture Remains the Same

Because a catfisher only has access to so many false profile pictures of the person whose look they are stealing, they may keep the same profile picture for many years. If you notice that the person is, for example, 45 years old, but their profile picture looks closer to 35, they may be falsifying their identity.

A catfisher may be able to grab several pictures of the same person online and then roll them out one by one as months or years go by. However, the pictures they take may have all been snatched at the same time, making them look as if they are not aging as time passes.

4. They Avoid Meeting Up

A face-to-face meetup is a catfisher’s nightmare. There is no surer way for their false identity to be compromised. A catfisher who lives close to you will be easier to spot if they refuse to meet up, regardless of how public the intended location is. 

If the catfisher lives farther away, it can be easy for them to repeatedly use that as an excuse. In that case, if you are suspicious, you can always recommend a video call. If they are not open to that it is highly likely you are being catfished.

5. Their Stories Do Not Add Up

Assuming another identity requires a string of flawlessly executed lies. It is easy for a careless catfisher to slip up. For example, if someone claims to live in one area of the country but is suddenly in your area, they may be trying to intensify their connection with you through closer “proximity.” Sudden adjustments such as this are easy to spot. 

In other instances, the catfisher may claim to have attended a certain high school or university but knows little about the location or the institution itself.

6. They Ask You for Money

If your suspected catfisher asks for money or a gift, your suspicions are likely correct. Even if you have already formed an emotional or business connection with the person, it is best to refuse their request. In general, you should never send money to someone whose identity you cannot confirm.

7. They Are Over the Top

If you are in contact with someone you have never met and they make overly committal claims like they love you or want to engage in a major business venture with you, they may be catfishing you. It is likely they feel a grand gesture may win your trust.

Why People Catfish?

How Fortinet Can Help

A proactive security approach is essential to address these threats. Deception technology is one such approach. Deception technology is a method of uncovering the bad actors and their tactics. 

It can be difficult to avoid being catfished in the first place, but there is much you can do to prevent falling for the scam. Always be cautious when talking to people online. Default to not trusting them, at least until they fully earn your trust. Never give money to anyone online if you are not confident in who they are.

Do not be afraid to ask questions even if you feel like you are “prying.” If something feels off, talk about it with someone you trust and listen to their opinions regarding any red flags they notice. Their emotional distance can give them a clearer perspective.


What does it mean to catfish someone?

Catfishing refers to when a person takes information and images, typically from other people, and uses them to create a new identity for themselves.  

What do you do if you get catfished?

If you get catfished, you should discontinue all association with the catfisher, block them on your social media accounts, and report them. Also, stop all payments you may have made to them, and contact the authorities if you are being defrauded of money or property.

Why do people catfish?

People catfish because they have low self-esteem or want to use a fake identity to gain someone’s trust for the sake of defrauding them. People also catfish to ruin someone’s reputation or engage in cyberbullying.

How can you tell if someone is a catfisher?

If someone will not meet up with you, either in person or via video or voice call, has a profile picture that rarely or never changes, asks you for money, or has very few friends or followers, they may be a catfisher.