Avast Academy Security Other Threats What Is Catfishing and How Do You Spot a Catfisher?

What Is Catfishing and How Do You Spot a Catfisher?

Catfishing is the practice of creating a fake online persona to trick, scam, or steal somebody’s identity. Catfishers build a relationship with their victim to gather sensitive personal information, usually via social media or online dating apps. Learn how to recognize catfishing signs and get comprehensive security like Avast One to protect yourself against online scams.

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Written by Emily Nemchick
Published on February 10, 2023

What is catfishing?

Catfishing is when a person creates a fake online persona or uses someone else’s photographs and personal details to impersonate them in a scam. The goal of catfishing is to initiate a relationship with a victim, build trust, and extract personal information.

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    The motive behind catfishing is often financial, with the catfisher asking for money for a seemingly worthy cause (for example, to help a sick family member). But some catfishers simply enjoy the thrill of fooling their victims. Nearly all catfishing scams happen on social media or online dating sites, where scammers have access to tons of potential victims, with little risk of getting caught.

    Why is it called catfishing?

    It’s called “catfishing” because catfish used to be put in the same tanks as cod during shipping to chase the cod and keep them active. Similarly, an online catfish is a hidden predator chasing their victim amid a swarm of online profiles.

    The term “catfishing” was popularized in 2010 after the release of the documentary Catfish, which explores Nev Schulman’s experience as a victim of catfishing.

    14 signs you’re being catfished

    Catfishing is a deceitful strategy used by cybercriminals to prey on their victim’s feelings for their own gain — be it financial or simply to boost their own ego. Because catfishing relies on the fraudster gaining a victim’s trust and building a relationship with them, it can be hard to spot. There are red flags that can clue you in that an online relationship is really just a romance scam in disguise.

    Here are fourteen of the most prevalent catfishing warning signs to look out for:

    Little or no online presence

    Today, nearly everyone has an online presence. Most people have social media accounts such as Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn where they share personal and professional information, photos, and details about their personal lives. While some people share almost every aspect of their lives and others prefer their privacy, it’s exceedingly rare that you can’t find a trace of someone with a Google search.

    A particularly glaring catfishing warning sign is someone active on only one social media platform — the one they use to communicate with their victim — while having essentially no other online presence. The catfisher might have removed their personal information online to remain hidden.

    Avoiding video calls

    Is your online crush reluctant to show their face? You might be a victim of catfishing. Catfishers use fake photos to lure in their victims, because they don’t want to reveal their true selves. A person you meet online who constantly avoids requests for a video call or makes up excuses such as a broken camera might not be who they say they are.

    Video calling can leave you vulnerable. Make sure your webcam is secure and hasn’t been hacked by a cybercriminal.

    A new or recently created profile on social media

    Most people have social media accounts they have been using for years. It should raise suspicion when you are talking online with somebody whose account has only recently been created, especially if they have no other social media accounts, or all their accounts are brand new.

    A social media account created for a catfish scheme often has only a few photos, a handful of friends or followers, and lacks posts or personal information.

    Catfishers create fake social media accounts to trick victims.Catfishers often create fake social media accounts to trick victims.

    Using only professional pictures

    While some people prefer to keep their online presence to a minimum, it’s usually a red flag if you can find only one or two professional photos linked to a person’s online identity. A catfisher will often have few photos and no personal or casual photos. That’s because they aren’t actually who they say they are, and the identity they have created online is false. Similarly, if a request for photos is met with only the same couple of images they already posted online, it might be time to cut ties.

    Avoiding physical meetups

    If you are being catfished, the fraudster will likely want to pursue a relationship exclusively online — by text, email, Facebook messenger, and other means that avoid face-to-face meetups.

    Catfishers often use fake photos as part of their false online identities, so a person trying to forge a romantic relationship while staying firmly in the shadows could be catfishing you. They might agree to meet but then always find a reason to cancel — or they might just give no response to any requests to meet in person.

    Personal information that doesn’t add up or sounds conflicting

    It’s easy to identify a catfisher by the holes in their story. Catfishers are often lonely people who want to boost their own egos, so their lies can be elaborate — a high-flying career, luxurious lifestyle, and extravagant holidays. But the details often don’t add up — the story changes, and the catfisher ducks questions about their job, family, home, and other details.

    If the catfisher is trying to build a strong emotional connection with their victim to gain their trust, they might construct a heart-tugging emotional backstory about childhood trauma — but they later share conflicting and contradictory information. And if the catfisher is trying to benefit financially, they might come up with a farfetched situation to convince their victim to send money.

    Beware of anyone sharing personal information that sounds far-fetched, because it could be fake. Trust your gut: if something doesn’t seem to add up, step away from the relationship.

    Asking for money

    Catfishers often try to trick their victims into giving them money. Once they have gained their victim’s trust, catfishers play on their emotions to get a payday. They might fake an emergency where they urgently need money to take care of a family member’s medical costs. Or, they might ask for money for a plane ticket to come out and visit.

    Whatever the story, be suspicious of anyone you meet online who asks for money. It’s an even bigger red flag if you have transferred money to someone online and they find another excuse to ask for a second payout.

    An example of a catfisher asking for money after gaining the victim's trust.

    Love bombing

    The easiest way for a catfisher to gain their victim’s trust is by initiating a romantic relationship. If someone makes romantic overtures online and the relationship seems to progress incredibly quickly, it might be a form of catfishing. Beware of a person who showers you with romantic attention only just after your first online meeting, but avoids meeting up in person. This is known as love bombing.

    Watch out for someone who shares intimate stories and seems to immediately trust you with personal information — this is a classic social engineering trick designed to make you let your guard down or share similarly personal information about your own life that they can use to defraud you.

    Using stolen or fake pictures

    Catfishers often impersonate somebody else online and steal their identity and photos. Other catfishing attempts rely on entirely fabricated profiles with fake pictures. Look out for accounts with only a handful of photos, or photos that look photoshopped. A reverse-image Google search might reveal that a photo is fake, stock, or has been taken from elsewhere.

    A reverse-image Google search can tell you a photo is a fake.Running a reverse-image Google search can show you that a supposedly real personal photo is actually a stock image.

    Few friends or followers on social media

    Catfishers create fake social media profiles to scam their victims. It’s usually easy to tell if a social media profile has recently been created or does not belong to a real person, because it will have very few friends or followers. While this doesn’t necessarily mean the individual is a catfisher (they may simply be an introvert), it may be a sign that you should be careful.

    Poor English or bad grammar

    Scams are often accompanied by poor grammar, and catfishing is no different. The catfisher might claim to be from an English-speaking country or to live nearby, but if they have poor English, this could be a sign they are not who they say they are.

    Asking you for deeply personal information

    Catfishers like to get personal, usually on an escalated timeline. Be wary of sharing information online. If somebody you’ve never met in person asks for deeply sensitive information, they may be trying to scam you. The questions could be an attempt to hack your accounts and guess passwords. Requests for nudes or other sensitive materials might be an attempt at blackmail, so approach such a request with caution.

    Their life sounds a bit too busy or exciting

    Catfishers might pretend to have exciting, high-flying lifestyles for several reasons. They can use their busy lives as an excuse to dodge searching questions or requests to meet up in person. Additionally, people who are catfishing for their own entertainment are more likely to create elaborate alter-egos. If their life sounds too good to be true, that’s probably a sign that you’re being fed lies.

    An example of a catfisher avoiding a meetup and blaming it on their busy schedule.

    Something feels off

    If your gut tells you something doesn’t feel right, it could be a sign that you are being catfished. Even if you can’t identify exactly what feels off, trust your gut and step away from a situation that doesn’t feel right.

    Why do people catfish?

    Cybercriminals have different reasons for targeting internet users for catfishing, but their intentions are invariably self-serving — meaning that catfishing leaves victims feeling hurt, humiliated, and angry.

    Common reasons someone may choose to catfish include:

    • Poor self-esteem. Creating a false online persona that’s attractive, influential, rich, or otherwise conventionally desirable or successful can be a misguided attempt to boost self-esteem.

    • Mental illness. Depression, anxiety, narcissism, and other mental illnesses can motivate people to create a false online identity. Catfishers with mental illness are often seeking validation or human connection, or they want to present an idealized image of themselves.

    • Revenge. Some catfishers target people they know in real life whom they perceive to have wronged them, such as an ex-lover, cheating spouse, or hated boss. Catfishing can be used as a means to stalk them, steal their personal information, doxx them, or simply make them look foolish.

    • To conceal their identity. People choose to conceal their true identity online for many reasons. Though remaining anonymous online is often justified, it could also be malicious (because they intend to commit a cybercrime.

    • Harassment. Some catfishing is carried out with the intention of harassing or stalking a victim online.

    • To experiment with sexual preferences. This could be innocent, such as a person dabbling in fetishes or other sexual preferences. It could also be predatory, such as a pedophile posing as a teenager to form relationships with underage victims.

    • Financial gain. Asking for money is often a catfisher’s endgame. Catfishers prey on their victims’ emotions, using their pity or affection to trick them into sending money. Fraud is another common outcome — a catfisher may entice the victim to share sensitive financial information, which they then use to steal money.

    Real life examples of catfishing

    Unfortunately, catfishing is all too common, particularly on social media and online dating apps. A few notable instances of catfishing include:

    • Nev Schulman: The 2010 documentary Catfish tells the story of Schulman’s online relationship with a woman named Megan, whose identity was part of a web of lies created by the serial catfisher Angela Wesselman-Pierce.

    • Manti Te'o: In 2013, Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o believed his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, tragically died from leukemia. He was devastated and spoke of his loss in several interviews. Reporters later uncovered that Kekua did not exist and that Te’o had been catfished by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo.

    • Carly Ryan: In 2006, in an early case of catfishing via MySpace, 15-year-old Carly Ryan was murdered by a pedophile she met online whom she believed was a teenage boy.

    • Thomas Gibson: In 2011, the actor Thomas Gibson began an online affair, but it took a turn when the woman, who had been sending him fake photos taken from porn sites, used the explicit photos he had sent in return to blackmail him.

    • Alicia Kozakiewicz: In 2002, thirteen-year-old Alicia Kozakiewicz was kidnapped and raped by a man she met online whom she believed to be a boy her own age. Kozakiewicz started The Alicia Project to help prevent the same thing from happening to others.

    How to avoid catfishing

    Anyone could be targeted as a victim of catfishing. The following tips will help you to detect and avoid catfishing attempts:

    • Avoid giving out too much information about yourself online. Changing your Facebook privacy settings and your Instagram privacy settings is a good place to start.

    • Ask questions and verify details if something seems suspicious.

    • Do some research on the person if you suspect they are catfishing.

    • Talk to someone you trust about the catfishing suspect.

    • Change your privacy settings and create strong passwords to protect your personal information online.

    • Use strong cybersecurity software to help protect yourself against online scams.

    Get comprehensive protection against online scams

    To protect yourself from catfishers, you need to be proactive about your online security. This means being vigilant when talking to strangers online, trusting your gut, recognizing warning signs of scams, and using a digital protector to shield your devices from threats.

    Stay safe from catfishing scams and other online dangers by using comprehensive online security software. Connected to the world’s largest threat-detection network, Avast One protects you day and night. Install Avast One to block phishing attacks, fight scams, and stay safe online.


    What does catfishing someone mean?

    Catfishing is the practice of pretending to be someone you are not online in order to lure somebody into a predatory relationship.

    Online dating apps and other social media platforms are some of the most common places where cybercriminals will try to find their victims. Learn about common Instagram scams and other Facebook phishing scams.

    How common is catfishing?

    Catfishing is a common tactic used by cybercriminals to deceive people. FBI data showed more than 24,000 reports of catfishing in 2021 in the US alone. Romance scams are both increasingly prevalent and increasingly damaging. According to the US Federal Trade Commission, more than $547 million in losses were attributed to catfishing and other online romance scams in 2021.

    You can report identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission and report internet scams to local authorities or federal agencies, depending on the severity.

    What are the signs that you are being catfished?

    The most common signs that you are being catfished are:

    • Little or no online presence

    • Avoiding video calls

    • A new or recently created profile on social media

    • Using only professional pictures

    • Avoiding physical meetups

    • Conflicting personal information

    • Asking for money

    • Love bombing

    • Using stolen or fake pictures

    • Few friends or followers on social media

    • Poor grasp of English (if they claim to be a native speaker)

    • Requesting deeply personal information

    • Their life sounds a bit too exciting

    • Something feels off

    Fight catfishing and other online scams with Avast One

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    Fight catfishing and other online scams with Avast One

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    Emily Nemchick