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What is catfishing and how do you spot it?

When you see an ad for an absurdly cheap smartphone, you realize that it sounds too good to be true — so it most likely is. Most people can usually spot obvious scams and fake get-rich-fast schemes. But when it comes to human connection, emotions often cloud our judgment. Cybercriminals and scammers use this to their own advantage by catfishing people and extorting money out of them. Read on to find out what catfishing is and how you can recognize it before it’s too late.

What is catfishing and how do you spot it?

What is catfishing?

Catfishing definition

Catfishing is a social engineering scam where the attacker creates a fake online persona to target a specific victim on social networks. Pretending to be someone else, the scammer can attempt to enter into a fake romantic relationship with the victim, spy on them, manipulate them, or even engage in harassment campaigns without fear of reprisal.

People create fake profiles on social media or dating apps and platforms for several reasons:

  • They want to talk to other people but are too insecure about being themselves. A lonely person creates a fake profile for themselves to be able to connect with other people. It’s often easier for them to make human connections when they pretend to be someone else. It usually doesn’t do a lot of damage. If you get catfished this way, you might feel tricked or even betrayed, but there’s no real harm done.
  • They aim to harass or cyberbully someone while remaining anonymous. One of the more problematic issues with catfishing is using it for bullying another person. People create a fake profile, start chatting with their victim, gain their trust, find out personal details about them, and then use this information to bully them — sometimes even in real life. It could also lead to blackmail and doxxing.
  • They want to stalk or spy on someone they know. Partners create fake profiles to “test” each other, and sometimes people use catfishing to get to know a person they’ve seen in real life but were too afraid to talk to.
  • They want to trick people into giving them money. There are many ways scammers make you give them money. You might’ve seen the “Hot singles in your area” ad. It is the simplest and most obvious form of catfishing. They use photos of attractive women to get people to click on them. Once they do, they are often redirected to a dating site where they must sign up with a credit card, or that’s filled with more similar ads and malware. Alternatively, it could be just a friendly person writing to you on social media or a dating app. The bottom line: any person you meet online might be a catfisher, so it’s important to know how to spot them.

Why catfishing could be dangerous

If you fall for a catfishing scam , you will most likely lose money. It could be a few dollars you pay to sign up for a dating site that turns out to be fake and filled with bots. Or you might fall for a lie about your new online friend getting robbed in a foreign country with no way to get back home.

When it comes to losing money, they might install spyware or ransomware on your device. Spyware will work quietly to monitor your actions online. The attacker may steal your banking and credit card information or record you through your webcam and use it later for blackmail.

In the case of ransomware, they will encrypt everything on your device and demand money. On the other hand, if you used your work computer for communicating with the catfisher, the whole network in your company could be compromised. Imagine coming to work and seeing that every computer in the office is encrypted. It could cause damage worth thousands and even millions of dollars.

Catfishing often does a lot of psychological damage — in that sense, it’s the most dangerous social engineering attack out there. People get emotionally invested with the fake person. They might even reveal their secrets and adjust their future plans because of them. When it turns out to be a scam, even if they don’t lose money, they suffer emotionally.

Putting too much trust in strangers you met online could lead to serious consequences. The worst cases include real-life assault and even murder. People, and especially children, should know how to spot catfishers early on.

How to recognize catfishing

Catfishing comes in many different forms. Some people will never show their face and avoid meeting you or video chatting. Others won’t hide and be very open about themselves to get you to trust them. Either way, here are some signs that should make you suspicious:

  • They disappear after you confront them. Let’s say you caught them telling a lie or noticed they are not fluent in English as they claimed to be. If instead of explaining themselves they go offline, it’s a huge red flag. And if they never show up after that, you can be sure that you were catfished.
  • They insist on using a particular piece of software. You both want to have a video call, but they are pressuring you to install some software that seems suspicious or that you’ve never heard of before. Be careful — it might be disguised malware. Signing up for popular services like Zoom, Skype, or Google Hangouts is not that difficult. A lot of social networks and messaging apps also support video calls. So, if they are refusing every app you suggest and insist on using something else, be very careful.
  • They get too friendly too fast. If their goal is to scam you — time is money. They can’t spend months building a relationship, so they will do everything to progress your friendship quickly. They will reveal intimate details about themselves, tell you secrets, and find other ways to make you feel special. If someone you just met online is oversharing way too quickly, take a step back.
  • They are hiding their face. If they seem to always come up with a new excuse why they can’t video chat and generally seem to stick to written communication only, it might be a sign that they’re not who they say they are.
  • Their social media accounts look strange. Once you start to get to know somebody, it’s reasonable to start following each other on social media. Some people might not use any social media platforms, and that’s OK. But if they do show you their profile and it looks outdated, the friends’ list includes hundreds of seemingly random people, and there are no comments under their posts — it might be a sign that the profile is fake.
  • They start talking about money. Whether it’s a pity story about how they need an extra $50 to cover this month’s rent, or they start luring you into starting a business together that looks like a pyramid scheme, it’s a warning sign. Don’t give in and try to think clearly. If they really needed to borrow some money, wouldn’t they turn to their family and close friends, not some person they met online a few weeks ago?

Bottom line — always be extremely careful with people you meet online because you never know who’s sitting on the other side of the screen. Take care to protect your identity on the internet and don’t easily give away information about yourself.