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What is catfishing? Here’s how to avoid getting catfished

Last year, Manti Te’o told his catfishing story in ‘Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist.’ How can you avoid getting catfished?

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As we continue to live out our lives online, how can we avoid catfishers?

Illustration by Eliza Anderson, Deseret News

Last year, Netflix released “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist,” a two-part documentary about Manti Te’o’s catfishing story. But catfishing stories have been popular before “Untold” came out on Netflix. And if you’ve heard catfishing stories before, you might’ve thought the chances of you ever getting catfished were slim.

But as we continue to live our lives on the internet, it’s becoming more and more likely that you’ll come across a catfish. Here’s everything you need to know about catfishing — and how to avoid it happening to you.

What is catfishing?

According to cybersecurity company Fortinet, catfishing “refers to when a person takes information and images, typically from other people, and uses them to create a new identity for themselves.” This is usually done entirely online.

Catfishers typically create fake profiles on dating apps or social media platforms, such as Facebook. They’ll reach out to people via social media or dating apps to start a romantic relationship under false pretenses.

Why is it called catfishing?

The term comes from the 2010 documentary “Catfish,” where TV host and producer Nev Schuman begins an online relationship with a woman named Megan. As the documentary continues, it is revealed that the woman Schuman corresponded with was actually a catfisher named Angela Wesselman-Pierce. Instead of being the young and single woman she pretended to be, Wesselman-Pierce was a married woman and a mother of two.

In the documentary, Wesselman-Pierce’s husband explains the situation with a metaphor about catfish. He recounts a story about shipping cod from Alaska to China. By the time the cod would reach China, the fish would be “mush and tasteless.” So to combat this issue, fishermen would put catfish in with the cod to “keep the cod agile.”

Vince Pierce, Wesselman-Pierce’s husband, ends his story with this insight: “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.”

This is where the documentary got its name, as well as Schuman’s popular TV series, “Catfish: The TV Show.”

How did Manti Te’o get catfished?

In 2009, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o became Facebook friends with a woman named Lennay Kekua. Their friendship blossomed into romance and they were romantically involved until 2012, when Kekua supposedly died of leukemia.

The death of Te’o’s girlfriend was highly publicized when it was revealed that Kekua was a fake social media profile created by Naya Tuiasosopo. Tuiasosopo has come out as a transgender woman.

Throughout the entirety of their relationship, Te’o and Tuiasosopo never met in person. They communicated entirely online or via text and phone calls. That was how Tuiasosopo was able to convince Te’o that she was a woman named Lennay Kekua.

Te’o’s story is the subject of “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist,” a two-part Netflix documentary.

Why do people catfish?

In 2018, Eric Vanman, a social neuroscientist at the University of Queensland, interviewed 27 catfishers to identify why they catfish. Here’s what his research revealed:

  • Forty-one percent of participants mentioned loneliness. Other participants cited “a lonely childhood and ongoing struggles with social connection.”
  • One-third of participants mentioned insecurity with their physical appearance.
  • Over two-thirds of participants reported using catfishing as a way to escape.
  • Some participants used fake identities to experiment with gender or sexual orientation.

Surprisingly, many of the catfishers expressed guilt over their deception. One participant said, “It’s hard to stop the addiction.” Over one-third of participants expressed a desire to come clean.

At the end of his research, Vanman concluded that there is no easy solution to catfishing. “Catfishing will likely become a more common side-effect for this generation in particular.”

Is catfishing illegal?

In 2021, Utah state Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Syracuse, introduced HB239. The bill would make using someone’s name or person without their permission online “with the intent to harm, defraud, intimidate, or threaten any individual” a third-degree felony in Utah.

Lisonbee spoke to Fox 13 about catfishing, saying, “It can have really serious and harmful consequences in people’s lives.”

Gov. Spencer Cox signed HB239 in March of last year.

Is catfishing abusive?

While catfishing in itself might not be abusive, it can lead to abusive behavior on the part of the catfisher. Catfishing can lead to controlling behavior, emotional and verbal abuse, financial abuse and more. It can also be used by child predators to groom children online.

How to avoid getting catfished

As we continue to utilize the internet, it’s becoming more and more likely that you might come across a catfish. Here’s how to avoid getting catfished:

  • Keep your social media profiles private. That way it’ll be harder for catfishers to get information about you. Plus, you’ll be able to vet everyone that requests to follow you.
  • Be skeptical. Use your common sense when talking to a stranger online. If you start talking to someone that sounds too good to be true, they probably are.
  • Meet up in person. When you meet someone on a dating app or website, insist on meeting in person and in a public space. If they make excuse after excuse about meeting in person, they might be a catfish.
  • Use reverse image search. If you come across a profile with pictures that look suspiciously good, you can do a reverse image search on Google. You’ll be able to identify if the images are fake or of someone else.

Are you getting catfished?

Nowadays, it’s not unusual for relationships to spark online. But as you navigate social media and dating apps, it’s important to know the signs of catfishing. Here are some things catfishers often do:

  • Avoid video calls or meeting in person. This might be one of the biggest indicators of a catfish. According to VPN Overview, catfishers don’t want to reveal their real identity, so they’ll never agree to meet you in person and do a video call.
  • A newer social media profile. If someone has a newer profile, with only a few friends and followers, this could potentially be a red flag. It could indicate that a catfish created the profile specifically to get to you.
  • Few pictures on social media. Catfishers often create new profiles for their victims, which means that they likely won’t have a lot of pictures on their social media profiles. Be on the lookout for profiles that have pictures that were all posted at once. It’ll also be unlikely that catfish profiles will be tagged in any pictures by other people.
  • Avoid sending you a selfie immediately. If you ask a catfisher for a selfie, they’ll likely stall sending you one right away. That’s because they have to search to find a selfie from whoever they’re impersonating.
  • They ask for money or explicit photos or videos. While people who aren’t impersonating others might ask for money or explicit videos, it’s often the goal of catfishers to get money or explicit material. As a general rule, never give anyone you met on the internet money or explicit videos or photos of yourself.