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Catfishing: When What You See Online Isn’t What You Get

by Eharmony Editorial Team - December 3, 2018

Catfishing is when someone creates a fake identity on social media using false, often stolen information, in order to make themselves more desirable or attractive to potential victims. A once-unheard of phenomenon that’s become more and more common with the rise of the internet, it’s not quite as simple as mere online pretense.

So what is catfishing, anyway?

Why is it called catfishing? The term catfishing comes from the title of a 2010 documentary starring Hollywood producer Nev Schulman. Schulman was in a relationship with someone he thought was a nineteen-year-old girl, but in reality his paramour was a 40-year-old housewife. According to the documentary, her husband came up with the term, after a myth he’d heard where catfish were shipped with cod in order to keep the latter active and healthy during long journeys at sea.

Psychologists say that the online disinhibition effect – a phenomenon where the anonymity people feel on the Internet leads them to say and do things they wouldn’t otherwise do – makes it easier for people to catfish. As more and more of our interactions go online, it’s no surprise that more and more people are choosing to lie about themselves on the Internet.

That said, there are many reasons behind catfishing, ranging from the admirable – people using online personas to catch pedophiles and other criminals – to the actively malicious – people pretending interest in others in order to fleece or emotionally manipulate them.

Why people catfish

According to experts, the reasons why people pretend to be someone completely different online are diverse and complex. We’ll look at three of those reasons in a little more detail.

For material gain

This is, sadly, a very common reason for catfishing. This type of catfisher specifically chooses victims who are vulnerable and manipulates them into sending them money, gifts, or explicit photos, depending on what their goal is. For example, they might pretend to be a childless widower in their 60s in order to attract older, less-savvy middle-aged women who will be easy prey.

These catfishers pretend to be romantically interested in their victims, tailoring their profiles to match their interests, and work to gain their trust in order to better manipulate them. The victims often only realize they’ve been duped after significant financial loss.


In a survey of catfishers conducted by The Conversation, 41% of responders confessed to catfishing because they felt lonely. (( For these catfishers, creating a new, and more interesting, online identity was a way of escaping the monotony of their ‘real’ lives and getting more people to talk to them.

In addition, for some catfishers, particularly those belonging to queer or other marginalized communities, catfishing provides a way to explore their identities without fear of judgement or consequences. For example, a person wondering if they’re transgender might create a fake persona that matches their desired gender identity in order to explore how it feels, especially if they’re in an environment where it’s not safe to do so offline.

Low-self-esteem issues

Some catfishers choose to create fake online identities simply because they’re dissatisfied with their real ones. Whether it’s about their physical appearance – just look at how many catfishers use stolen photos of models on their social media profile posts – or their personalities, people who catfish for this reason are often deeply insecure and don’t believe anyone would like them for them.

In addition, this type of catfishing has a lot to do with the rise of ‘highlight reel syndrome’ on social media. When everyone around you is showing off perfectly framed selfies, vacations in Bali, or immaculate homes and gardens, your own life can feel small and boring by comparison – hence the temptation to catfish.

Signs you’re being catfished, and how to deal

So how do you know whether that cute single you met online is the real deal? Some things to keep in mind, if you want to know how to stop catfishing:

If it’s too good to be true, it probably is

While the person who liked your profile pic or dropped into your DMs could be an underwear model with a collection of vintage sports cars and a holiday home in Mallorca… odds are, they aren’t. While that’s a hyperbolic example, be wary of anyone who seems too perfect at first glance.

TIP: Ask questions about their great job or jet-setter lifestyle. If they fumble or get defensive? That’s a clue they aren’t what they seem.

Google is your friend

Yes, it can feel creepy and even unethical, but it’s a good precautionary measure… some might even call it the bare minimum. But googling potential dates can save you a world of trouble in the long run, and anyone actually worth your time won’t mind that you checked into them; after all, they presumably like you and want what’s best for you as well.

TIP: A tool like Google Lens, which searches images, can be invaluable for checking whether your potential date’s profile picture is, say, from a stock photo site or plain stolen from somewhere on the Internet.

Set your privacy filters to max

One of the ways catfishers manipulate their targets is using information they glean from their social media profile to make a connection – after all, you’re much more likely to talk to a fellow Cubs fan, or be interested in someone who also likes hiking. Which is why a good way to protect yourself is to not have too much information about you online. Even when you start chatting with someone, be careful about how much you tell them; you don’t want to divulge too much information too soon.

TIP: Look at your social media profiles when logged out, or using different accounts; that will tell you what information people can see.

Go slow

Relatedly, if the other person starts with declarations of love way too soon? That’s a good reason to be cautious. Similarly with requests for explicit photos, which you should never send unless you absolutely trust your partner, and even then, it’s best to err on the side of caution; revenge porn is a sad reality, after all, especially for women. Be wary of being swept up in a rush and falling too fast – you don’t want to regret it later.

TIP: Take a deep breath and remind yourself that good things come to those who wait, and then do so.

Check their social media

While Googling can help separate the catfishers from the genuine singles looking for a date, it’s also a good idea to check their social media. Fake accounts often have few or no pictures with friends or family, no pictures with anyone tagged (really, how common is that?) and no casual pictures of everyday life. In addition, fake profiles often have very few connections with other users; the more connected a fake profile is, the easier it is for it to be found out.

TIP: Message some of the accounts they’re friends with; it’s a good way to tell if they’re real or fake.

Meet up sooner rather than later

While it’s easy to lie online, it’s far harder to do so in person. For this reason, you should attempt to arrange a meeting as soon as possible. Ideally, you should be able to meet in person, but if distance is an issue, you should, at the very least, try and Skype. If your date refuses to come on video, or keeps setting up dates and canceling, that’s a massive red flag right there.

TIP: For safety reasons, make sure that your first few dates are in a public place, like a café or a mall.

Trust your gut

No matter how advanced technology may get, there’s still a lot to be said for plain old fashioned human intuition. Many people who’ve escaped abusive relationships have tales of red flags they ignored to their later detriment. Don’t ignore any feelings of discomfort, and take any hesitation on your part seriously; it’s often your unconscious brain putting together things the rest of you hasn’t figured out yet.

TIP: Don’t be afraid to ask uncomfortable questions, or cause offense, if it means the chance to validate a bad feeling. Those are often a very good sign something isn’t right.

Find Real Love Now!

When it comes to online dating, trust but verify

As more and more Americans choose to look for love online, sadly, the pool of potential catfishing victims becomes larger and larger. That said, it’s perfectly possible to not be taken in; it just takes knowing what catfishing is, being cautious, and watching for the signs listed above. Or you could sign up for eharmony; its focus on safety makes it a great option for people looking for serious dating options on the Internet without the risks of looking for love online. So sign up for eharmony and get started on your journey to love today!

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