When Nicky, 36, matched with “Ryan” on Tinder while swiping through the dating app a few years ago, she couldn’t believe it. He sent the first message, and she was buzzing because “he was beautiful.”
“He was this super hot guy with an amazing body, loads of tattoos, and sun, sea, and sand in the background [of his profile picture]. He said he was from the UK, and it was a holiday photo,” she tells Elite Daily.
Nicky couldn’t wait to get to know this gorgeous man who vacationed in the U.S. and frequented pale blue California beaches, but after chatting for a couple days, she soon realized that “Ryan” probably wasn’t who he said he was. Was she being catfished? “His profile seemed too good to be true from the beginning,” she says. “He told me he was a model and had worked on some big campaigns. He fired off some big names like Calvin Klein and Hugo Boss — the high rollers. But he would take ages to answer any questions I asked about it, like which agency he was with and who he’d worked for. I just thought, ‘There’s no way!’”
“Catfishing,” a term popularized by the 2010 documentary film Catfish (which documents the story of a young New York photographer, Nev Schulman, as he embarks on a journey to uncover the truth behind the person he develops an online relationship with, “Megan”) is a phenomenon synonymous with the internet itself. Today there’s no shortage of catfishing content, from MTV’s Catfish: The TV Show (inspired by the documentary and hosted by Schulman himself) to Netflix’s The Circle (where players can choose to play as a catfish) and the seemingly endless supply of scammer stories (hi, Tinder Swindler). Apart from entertainment, catfishing is a trap that thousands of daters fall into every year — in 2021 alone, online daters lost a record $547 million to romance scams, according to the United States Federal Trade Commission.
So, what exactly is catfishing, and what are the warning signs to look out for so it doesn’t happen to you? Elite Daily spoke with experts to get you the 101 on how to tell if you are being catfished, and offer you some tips on what to do if you suspect there’s something fishy about your new online boo.
What Is “Catfishing”?
“Catfishing is the act of pretending to be someone you’re not online. It often involves using photos of others to portray a fictional persona with the goal of luring, seducing, or connecting with others,” says Los Angeles-based psychotherapist Brooke Schwartz.
There are many reasons why people catfish, some of which are truly insidious — such as for blackmail, for soliciting money, for entertainment, as a form of harassment or revenge, and even to abuse or traffic victims — but while the act of catfishing itself is harmful, it’s important to recognize that not all people who catfish have a malicious intent (this is where things get a little blurry).
“Many people who catfish experience insecurity and low self-esteem, and find that they are more confident under the guise of someone else’s identity,” explains Schwartz. “These are often people who are lonely, isolated, or rejected by their peers and feel that catfishing is their only opportunity to form a connection.”
Madeline McKinnon, co-founder and U.S. general manager of video-first dating app Feels, adds that while this person is using a shield to connect with someone else, “they are being authentic in their emotional portrayal.” McKinnon calls this type of catfish the “bad actor” — while this person truly wants to form an emotional connection, they have no intention to take the relationship offline due to fear and a lack of confidence.
Some people may also catfish to explore their sexuality and gender identity in an online environment, which may be a safer space to do so compared to their lived reality, says Schwartz.
Then there is a third type of catfishing that is even more nuanced: not being true to your own evolution. McKinnon says that this form of catfishing involves using outdated images on your dating profile, sharing half-truths (e.g. saying you studied software engineering when you actually studied finance because you noticed your match works in tech), and identifying with certain beliefs that don’t align with your personality. As Bustle previously reported, Hinge actually coined a term for this lighter form of catfishing in 2017, “kittenfishing.”
“As humans, we’re evolving constantly, so just like you update your profile picture on Facebook, you need to update your online dating profile to reflect your authentic self,” explains McKinnon.
Signs That Someone Is Catfishing You
If you’re curious to know how to catch a catfish, here are some warning signs to look out for:
1. They refuse to FaceTime with you.
“Many catfish tell others they prefer to speak over text, email, or phone calls in order to keep up the façade,” says Schwartz. If they seem to have a million and one excuses for why they can’t communicate via FaceTime, you might want to keep a closer eye on them.
2. They have no digital footprint.
“Many people who catfish will use other people’s photos with a fabricated name. If you search this name online and can’t find anything about them, or you reverse search the photo and results show a different name than the person gave you, this may be an indication that you’re being catfished,” explains Schwartz.
McKinnon adds that if you know your match’s last name but suspect they’re not being totally transparent, it doesn’t hurt to do some digging on Google. In this hyper-online world, it’s pretty rare that someone doesn’t have at least one form of social media, so if you can’t seem to find anything about them online or discover that their images are linked to another person’s profile, something’s definitely a little fishy there.
Many online daters, especially those who identify as women, agree that having no social media is a huge warning sign. Michael Kaye, associate director of global communications at OkCupid, tells Elite Daily that women on the app are “more than 110% more likely than men to think it’s a red flag if their date doesn’t have social media.” Maybe they don’t have Instagram, but if they at least have Facebook or LinkedIn (or even Pinterest), at least you can tell they’re a real person.
3. They don’t have many friends or followers on social media.
If they do have social media but have very few friends or followers, that’s also a warning sign that they might be a catfish. “Many people who catfish use their account solely for the purpose of communicating with the person (or people) they are catfishing and won’t dedicate time to making their profile seem ‘real’ beyond simply adding photos,” says Schwartz.
Something else to look out for on their page is whether it demonstrates age progression. “Catfishers tend to post photos without considering that people on social media tend to show some indication of aging over time,” adds Schwartz. “It’s unlikely that someone who catfishes will have photos dating years back that show that they have aged.”
4. They want to quickly move off the app.
It’s normal to want to exchange IG handles after chatting for a while, but if they want to move off the app almost immediately after matching, that could be a warning sign that they’re up to some sketchy behavior, especially if they start wanting to text all day and exchange NSFW content very early on.
They might want to get off the app to have a different conversation or solicit illicit photos, like nudes, for blackmail, as many dating apps don’t allow you to send photos, says McKinnon.
5. They have plenty of excuses for not meeting IRL.
Red alert! If the person you’re talking to never makes plans to meet IRL and seems to strictly want an online relationship, that’s a pretty clear sign that they might be a catfish.
“They may say things like, ‘I’m too nervous to meet in person’ to avoid exposing their true identity,” says Schwartz.
What To Do If You Think You’re Being Catfished
First things first, if you think you’re being catfished, don’t feel embarrassed. “I want to emphasize this point because it literally happens to the most careful online daters,” explains McKinnon. “People can be very charming and cunning at the same time — the shield of being online makes it all too easy to deceive someone.”
As for next steps, start by doing your own research — Google them, reverse search their images, and dig through their social media. If you don’t know their full name, don’t be afraid to ask for it. McKinnon says you can say something like, “I don’t feel comfortable talking any further until I have more information about you — this is just how I vet people.” If they don’t have anything to hide, there should be some understanding there.
When Nicky had a hunch that “Ryan” might be a catfish, she Googled the modeling agency he said he worked with and searched his name on their site. “Of course, he wasn’t there. I asked him why he didn’t have a portfolio on the website, and he made some excuse about waiting for more recent photos to be uploaded from his latest fashion campaign, so I did a reverse image search of his profile picture and it came up straight away that he was a Californian skateboarder!”
If you find any inconsistencies, flag them and bring it up to your match if you feel that it’s safe to do so. “Ask them questions, including ones you’ve asked them before, so that you can assess for consistency,” says Schwartz. “Notice how they respond, whether they dodge certain questions, or whether their answers to some questions make other answers they’ve given you in the past implausible.”
After confirming her suspicions, Nicky messaged “Ryan” saying, “You didn’t say you were into skateboarding.” “He was so confused,” she says. “I sent him this guy’s photos and links to interviews, and he tried to blag [make it seem] that the skateboarder had stolen his identity! And that was it. I told him I’d rumbled [discovered] him and to give up his games, so he blocked me.”
If you do feel unsafe during an online interaction, make sure to limit the information you share about yourself. “In the event that you are being scammed financially, it’s important that you not share information that could help someone hack into your accounts,” says Schwartz.
Finally, listen to your gut! If you’re having trouble fully trusting your hunches (it can be hard to spot red flags when you’re deep into a relationship, whether online or IRL) it doesn’t hurt to seek outside advice from friends and family to help confirm your suspicions and let you know, “Yeah, that’s definitely a red flag.”
“If something feels off, that’s indication enough that the relationship isn’t for you, whether or not it’s truly catfishing that’s taking place,” says Schwartz. You know yourself best, so if the vibes are off for any reason, that’s a surefire sign to do some digging or be like Elsa from Frozen and let it go.
Brooke Schwartz, LCSW, LMSW, Los Angeles-based psychotherapist
Madeline McKinnon, co-founder and U.S. general manager of Feels
Michael Kaye, associate director of global communications at OkCupid