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In a world where more new couples are meeting online than in person and friendship is measured by requests, follows, and likes, it might seem like relationships forming and developing through the internet is the norm.

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 59% of internet users feel that online dating is a good way to meet people, but that number might go down as the prevalence of catfishing continues to grow. Deceptive internet frauds called catfishers target individuals with a range of goals, from revenge and cyberbullying to building false relationships and even theft or crime.

What is catfishing?

The term catfish was reserved for the barbed freshwater. That is until 2010, when filmmaker Nev Schulman chronicled his experience meeting and falling in love with a woman he met online, “Megan”.

In the end, the documentary revealed that the woman behind Megan was in reality a woman named Angela, using a fake name and photos of a Vancouver based model to create the online profile. The documentary was titled “Catfish” based on a story Angela’s husband shared.

They used to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China. They’d keep them in vats in the ship. By the time the codfish reached China, the flesh was mush and tasteless. So this guy came up with the idea that if you put these cods in these big vats, put some catfish in with them and the catfish will keep the cod agile. And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank god for the catfish because we would be droll, boring and dull if we didn’t have somebody nipping at our fin.

Vince Pierce in Nev Schulman’s 2010 documentary “Catfish”

“Catfish” the movie led to an MTV spinoff that launched in 2012, and the term catfish is now widely used to describe “a person who sets up a false personal profile on a social networking site for fraudulent or deceptive purposes.” But catfishing isn’t limited to social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Fake profiles are commonly found on dating sites as well. In Catfish the TV show Nev helps individuals who aren’t sure whether the people they met online are who they say they are while conducting amateur investigations, usually consisting of reverse image searches and reaching out the individual’s friends and family on Facebook.

But a true catfish or social media investigation is more intense than that, and so can are some of the after effects. Catfishers get close to their targets for a variety of reasons, some as severe as fraud, blackmail, and identity theft.

What are some of the risks of being cat fished?

Though many of the risks in being catfish circle around emotional harm, there are other very real dangers involved:

  • Emotional damage
  • Public embarrassment
  • Identity theft
  • Blackmail
  • Child exploitation
  • Credit card theft
  • Extortion
  • Cyber bullying
  • Fraud
  • Physical harm

This is why it’s important to educate yourself and your family about the dangers of being catfished, and to know how to move forward if you suspect something is not right with someone you are getting close to online.

What are some of the signs you might be being catfished?

If something seems off and you are concerned about a new online friend, or are noticing some inconsistencies with someone you’ve been interacting with for a while, there’s a chance you are being catfished.

Signs on Their Profile

  • The name on their profile doesn’t match the name in the URL
  • They have very few friends/followers, or a very high number
  • You have few or no mutual friends
  • They’re very attractive and their photos look like they were professionally taken
  • They don’t have many pictures with friends on their profile—almost all photos are of them alone
  • They rarely get comments on their posts, or they are always from the same people

Signs From Your Interactions

  • They move very fast and convey strong feelings even if there hasn’t been much interaction, especially online
  • They either refuse to or are very hesitant about talking on the phone
  • They refuse to video chat or keep having problems with Skype, FaceTime, etc.
  • They set up a time to meet or video chat but don’t show up and have a seemingly reasonable excuse
  • They get angry when you confront them
  • You’ve caught them lying
  • They make over the top promises
  • You’ve decided to be exclusive, regardless of having never met

Other Signs

  • They travel often, but can’t meet you
  • It seems to good to be true
  • Something seems off
  • They don’t have any other social media profiles
  • Their personal details are vague or don’t add up
  • They ask for money or favors
  • Your friends are skeptical
  • They’re going through some sort of hardship

What to do if you think you are being catfished?

There’s no definitive, fool-proof way to move forward when you think you are being catfished. Some good first steps would be to:

  1. Gather all of the information you have about the person (First name, last name, nicknames, age, birthday, where they live, job, photos, etc.)
  2. Take a close look at their profile and make a note of anything that seems off to you
  3. Make a list of any inconsistencies in the information they have given you
  4. Talk to your friends and family about your concerns, and listen carefully to what they think about the situation
  5. Think about how each potential outcome (catfish vs. not a catfish) will affect you, and start to prepare yourself emotionally
  6. Pursue a catfishing investigation

If you want definitive answers, you could apply to be on Catfish: The T.V. Show. However, there’s a good chance you won’t be selected, and not everyone wants to face potential heartache and embarrassment in front of a national audience.

You can run a “DIY catfish investigation” using some basic methods like reverse Google image search and searching for other profiles or taking a close look at the person’s friends, but often times this information can just add to the confusion and raise more questions. It also takes a lot of time. While it can still show you the person may not have been honest with you, it’s not common to get definitive answers through these methods, and when it comes to an online relationship with feelings of doubt, most people want clear-cut answers either way.

So, if you need help finding answers, hiring a social media investigator might be the way to go.

A social media investigator will be able to run searches across multiple platforms, set up alerts for posts containing certain information and new accounts being created, and be able to look at the geographic and time stamp data of posts and uploads. For supplemental research offline, a private investigator will also have access to databases through which they can verify the individual’s personal data.

Getting answers is an important part of getting closure and moving forward. A private investigator can conduct an extensive social media investigation to get you answers, and to determine once and for all whether or not the person you’re speaking with is who they say they are.