Editor’s Note: This story is part of ‘Systems Error’, a series by CNN As Equals, investigating how your gender shapes your life online. For information about how CNN As Equals is funded and more, check out our FAQs.
Catfishing is when a person uses false information and images to create a fake identity online with the intention to trick, harass, or scam another person. It is often on social media or dating apps and websites as a common tactic used to form online relationships under false pretenses, sometimes to lure people into financial scams.
The person doing the pretending, or the “catfish” may also obtain intimate images from a victim and use them to extort or blackmail the person. This is known as sextortion, or they may use other personal information shared with them to commit identity theft.
The term is believed to originate from the 2010 documentary “Catfish,” in which a young Nev Schulman starts an online relationship with teenager “Megan”, who turns out to be an older woman.
In the final scene of the documentary, the woman’s husband shares an anecdote about how live cod used to be exported from Alaska alongside catfish, which kept the cod active and alert. He likened this to people in real life who keep others on their toes, like his wife. Schulman went on to produce the docuseries Catfish
There are many reasons people resort to catfishing, but the most common reason is a lack of confidence, according to the Cybersmile Foundation, a nonprofit focused on digital well-being. The foundation states that if someone is not happy with themselves, they may feel happier when pretending to be someone more attractive to others.
They may also hide their identity to troll someone; to engage in a relationship other than their existing one; or to extort or harass people. Some people may catfish to explore sexual preferences.
Studies have shown that catfish are more likely to be educated men, with one 2022 study finding perpetrators are more likely to come from religious backgrounds, possibly providing a way to form relationships without the constraints they face in real life, the authors write.
In another study published last year, Evita March, senior lecturer in psychology at Federation University in Australia, found that people with the strong personality traits of sadism, psychopathy, and narcissism were more likely to catfish.
March told CNN the findings are preliminary and that her team would like to further investigate if certain personality traits lead to specific kinds of catfishing behavior.
In the US, romance scams resulting from catfishing have among the highest reported financial losses of internet crimes as a whole. A total of 19,050 Americans reported losing almost $740 million to romance scammers in 2022.
In the UK, the country’s National Fraud Intelligence Bureau received more than 8,000 reports of romance fraud in the 2022 financial year, totaling more than £92 million (US $116.6 million) lost, with an average loss of £11,500 (US $14,574) per victim.
In Singapore, romance scams are among the top 10 reported scams. The reported amount of money catfish may get from their victims increased by more than 30% from SGD$33.1 million (US $24 million) in 2020 to $46.6 million (US $34 million) the following year.
Catfishing is also increasingly happening on an industrial scale with the rise of “cyber scam centers” that have links to human trafficking in Southeast Asia, according to INTERPOL.
Victims of trafficking are forced to become fraudsters by creating fake social media accounts and dating profiles to scam and extort millions of dollars from people around the world using different schemes such as fake crypto investment sites.
Catfishing used to occur more among adults through online dating sites, but has now become equally common among teenagers, according to the Cybersmile Foundation.
Research by Snapchat last year with more than 6,000 Gen Z teenagers and young people in Australia, France, Germany, India, the UK and the US found that almost two-thirds of them or their friends had been targeted by catfish or hackers to obtain private images that were later used to extort them.
Older people are also likely to lose more money to catfishing. In 2021, Americans lost half a billion dollars through romance scams perpetrated by people using fake personas or impersonating others, with the largest losses paid in cryptocurrency, according to the US Federal Trade Commission. The number of reports rose tenfold among young people (18-29) but older people (over 70s) generally reported losing more money.
In Australia, a third of dating and romance scams result in financial losses, with women having lost more than double the total amount lost by men, and older people again losing more money than those under 45., according to data from the country’s National Anti-Scam Centre.
”Romance scams are one of the hardest things to avoid. It’s emotional manipulation,” said Ngo Minh Hieu, a Vietnamese former hacker and founder of Chong Lua Dao (scam fighters), a cybersecurity non-profit.
Since 2020, Hieu has been monitoring trends to help scam victims, he says, and explains that in his experience, a catfish would usually approach a victim with premediated intention to scam them.
They were likely to be using personal information that they mine from the victim’s social media accounts, or may have bought that data from users in private chat groups simply by providing a phone number of a potential victim.
There are many signs you can look for to help spot a catfish, experts say.
Firstly, a catfish might contact you out of nowhere, start regular conversations with you and shower you with compliments to quickly build up trust and rapport. They may state desirable qualities in their opening conversations, including wealth or attractiveness, but then rarely or never call you, either over the phone or on a video call.
They often do not have many friends on social media and their posts are usually scarce. Search results using their name may not yield many results and their stories are usually inconsistent. For example, personal details like where they live or go to school might change when discussed again.
Another classic sign is if the feelings they declare for you escalate quickly and after a short period of time. A catfish may ask you for sensitive images and money.
Many scammers use already available photos of other people in their fake personas, which may be possible to spot using a reverse image search.
With the explosion of AI technology, scammers may now generate unique and realistic images for use as profile pictures. But Hieu explains that thanks to their built-in patterns by design, AI-generated images can be detected, using tools such as AI-Generated Image Detector.
If you believe you are being catfished, there are steps you can take to protect yourself and help end the targeting.
Experts advise that you should not be afraid to ask direct questions or challenge the person you believe may be catfishing you. You can do this by asking them why they are not willing to call you or meet face to face, or questioning how they can declare their love for you so quickly.
Wang and her colleagues sent nearly 200 deterrent messages to active scammers in a 2020 study and concluded that this could make fraudsters respond less or in some cases, admit to wrongdoing.
An example of one of the messages was: “I know you are scamming innocent people. My friend was recently arrested for the same offense and is facing five years in prison. You should stop before you face the same fate.”
You should think about stopping all communications with the catfish, and refrain from sending money to them at the risk of further financial demands. Experts say catfish continue to target those who engage with them more.
It’s also useful to secure your online accounts and ensure your personal information is kept private online.
Cybersecurity expert Hieu explained that you can do this by putting personal information such as your phone number, email addresses and date of birth in private mode on social media. You can also check if your email has been compromised in a data breach by using tools such as the Have I Been Pwned website.
Installing two-factor authentication on your accounts can also help protect against unauthorized access. That requires you to take a second step to verify your identity when logging in to a service, for example by SMS or a physical device, such as a key fob.
Being subjected to catfishing can also have a significant impact on your mental health, with many victims left unable to trust others and some left feeling embarrassed about falling for the scam. A 2019 study found that young LGBTQ+ men in rural America experiencing catfishing on dating apps felt angry and fearful.
If someone was “sextorted,” they may continue to fear their images resurfacing online in the future.
March from Federation University in Australia recommended improving digital literacy and staying aware of the potential red flags. She also emphasized the need to recognize today’s loneliness epidemic, which “leads people to perhaps be more susceptible to catfishing scams,” she said.
Seeking professional support from a counselor or talking to supportive friends and family is one way to address loneliness, March added.
Catfishing is not explicitly a crime, but the actions that often accompany catfishing, such as extortion for money, gifts or sexual images are crimes in many places.
The main challenge in tackling online fraud is the issue of jurisdiction, according to a 2020 paper about police handling of online fraud victims in Australia. Traditional policing operates within specific territories, but the internet has blurred these boundaries, the authors write.
Cybercriminals from one country can also target victims in other countries, complicating law enforcement efforts, and victims often face difficulty and frustration when trying to report cybercrimes, which can further traumatize them.
Fangzhou Wang, a cybercrime professor at the University of Texas at Arlington told CNN that virtual private networks (VPNs), forged credentials, and anonymous communication methods make it extremely difficult to determine identities or locations.
Scammers have also capitalized on the proliferation of AI, such as AI-generated personas, which complicates the ability of law enforcement authorities to gather evidence and build cases against a catfish.
”Law enforcement agencies, often constrained by limited resources and prioritizing cases based on severity and direct impact, might not readily prioritize catfishing cases without substantial financial losses or physical harm,” Wang told CNN.
In the US, there are some legal precedents. In 2022, a woman who had created multiple fake profiles to target wealthy men was charged with extortion, cyberstalking, and interstate threats and was sentenced in a plea deal last year.
In the UK, while catfishing itself is not classified as a criminal offense, if the person using a fake profile engages in illegal activities, like financial gain or harassment, they can be punished by law.
China has a law that implicates people who allow their websites or communications platforms to be used for frauds and other illegal activities under Article 46 in the Cybersecurity Law.
If a catfish has tricked you into sending them money, you can go to the authorities and your bank immediately, depending on where you are.
If activities that are crimes in your country have taken place because of being catfished, such as extortion, identify theft or harassment, the police or other authorities, such as specific commissions targeting online crime, may be your first port of call.
The Australian government’s agency responsible for online safety, the e-safety commissioner, advises that people gather all the evidence they can, including screenshots of the scammer and chats with them to keep as evidence.
Depending on the case, you can also submit an abuse or impersonation report against the catfish directly to the platform on which you are communicating with them.
If you believe the person you are talking to is not who they say they are, most of the larger social media platforms give you the option report them for impersonation or other forms of abuse, including Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, X, Telegram, Tinder and WhatsApp. WeChat also offers a channel to report another user for harassment, fraud, or illegal activity, while Telegram creates an anti-scam thread for users to report on fraudsters.
You are not responsible for the catfish behaviors of others, but staying vigilant and alert online goes a long way.
Make sure your online accounts are secured and use two-factor authentication. When browsing the internet, you may want to use a virtual private network (VPN) which makes your internet activity harder to track.
In many countries such as the US, the UK and Australia, victims have reported being preyed on by catfish who tricked them to put money in bogus cryptocurrency investment sites.
If someone you have been talking to asks you to put money into an investment site, think twice. The Global Anti-Scam Organization has a database of fraudulent websites generated by their own investigations and the public’s tip offs to help inform you if you’re being scammed.
If you are a parent, this guide provided by the UK-based National College platform suggests communicating effectively and sensitively with your children about the risks. You may also help them report and block the catfish accounts and report to police if they have been subjected to anything illegal or inappropriate.
Because catfish get close to a target often by relying on personal information posted on social media, UNICEF asks children to consider their rights when it comes to parents sharing their pictures and other content online, especially when they are underage.
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