What is catfishing? What are the signs? How to protect kids, yourself

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  • A catfish is someone who pretends to be someone else online to find friends, romantic partners or victims on the internet.
  • The term “catfishing” comes from a 2010 documentary in which a man presented his own experience of being tricked online.
  • The FBI recommends being careful about what you post online as scammers can use details to target you.

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Catfishing has tricked countless internet users in recent decades.

People have used the deceptive practice for anything ranging from pranking their friends to carrying out serious crimes, like sexual assault and identity theft.

Catfishing regularly makes appearances in news headlines and crime stories. Just last week, a suspect died in a shootout with deputies after California police said he drove across the country to meet a teen girl he catfished, then killed three of her family members.

There are television series about it, including MTV’s Catfished, an 8-season reality TV show. There are documentaries about it, like the story ofManti Te’o, the football player who struggled through a girlfriend hoax.

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Despite the best efforts of social media sites attempting to make apps safer, catfishing continues today.

Why do people catfish? How do you spot a con? How should people protect their children from catfishing?

Here’s what to know about the deceptive activity:

What is catfishing?

Catfishing is a term for a person who pretends to be someone else online. A catfish uses fake photos, and sometimes a false persona, to find friends, romantic partners or victims on the internet.

Catfish can sometimes steal another person’s full identity, including date of birth, photos, and geographical location, and pretend it’s their own, according to Cyber Management Alliance. They then use the fake identity to trick others into doing business online or further communicating with them.

According to the FBI, criminals who carry out romance scams are experts at what they do and will seem genuine, caring, and believable. Con artists are present on most dating and social media sites.

How did the term start?

The term “catfishing” comes from a 2010 documentary film in which a man named Nev Schulman presented his own experience of being tricked online.

Schulman then created an MTV show, which he and Max Joseph host. The show investigates catfishing cases. It often reveals a catfish’s true identity at the end of an episode.

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What are signs of catfishing?

Rob Burghardt, assistant special agent in charge of The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Crimes Against Children unit, said signs of catfishing include when a person avoids showing their face on a video or in pictures, their online accounts don’t have many friends or interactions, or their stories seem to good to be true.

“They usually start with a profile picture, someone who is usually really attractive,” Burghardt told USA TODAY. “That way the victim is like, ‘Oh my God, this attractive person is talking to me.'”

Catfish often make up stories to fit into your life, he said.

“Some people act like another child who is the same age (as the potential victim),” Burghardt said. “With children, it’s part of a grooming process, sometimes by child predators. They figure out where they go to school, where their favorite sports are and make their story similar. Once they gain trust, he said, that’s when questions like, ‘Where do you live?

In addition, catfish sometimes ask for money, or can become romantic right away.

A person you’ve never met asking for money is a huge red flag, Burghadt said.

Why do people catfish?

When it comes to the psychology of a catfisher, Burghardt, said, it’s not always known why they participate in the scam.

According to information from Burghardt, someone may choose to catfish for reasons including:

  • To explore their sexuality
  • To sexually exploit children
  • Poor self-esteem
  • To hide their identity
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Mental health issues
  • For financial gain
  • Targeted revenge or harassment

How to avoid being catfished

The FBI recommends being careful about what you post and make public online as scammers can use details shared on social media and dating sites to better understand and target you.

It also recommends to search the person’s photo and profile using online searches to see if the image, name, or details have been used elsewhere.

Other tips from the FBI include:

  • Ask lots of questions.
  • Beware if the individual seems too perfect or quickly asks you to leave a dating service or social media site to communicate directly.
  • Beware if the person attempts to isolate you from friends and family or requests inappropriate photos or financial information.
  • Beware if the individual promises to meet in person but then always comes up with an excuse why he or she can’t. If you haven’t met the person after a few months, for whatever reason, you have good reason to be suspicious.
  • Never send money to anyone you have only communicated with online or by phone.

How to talk to your kids about catfishing

Catfishing affects people of all ages, Burghardt said.

While parents can’t be online 24/7 with their children, here’s what law enforcement recommends when it comes to protecting children from being catfished:

  • Be the parent. Make sure children use their electronic devices in the living room or a public area. Do not let them use it in the bathroom or bedroom.
  • Don’t let them use headphones so you can hear what the other person is saying.
  • Don’t just give your child a phone, make sure their mature enough to use it.
  • Don’t send photos to strangers. “We tell parents and kids, don’t talk to people online you have never met in real life, and don’t send anyone anything you wouldn’t send your parents or grandparents,” Burghardt said.

McAfee, a computer security company, also recommends the following:

  • Talk about news stories with children. Talk about the emotional consequences of “catfishing” that can easily get out of control.
  • Teach your kids to be savvy to scams online. Be real about the half-truths people may claim online.
  • Continually monitor. By installing parental monitoring software you can track your child’s online interactions and spot troubling conversations early. Monitoring allows you to coach your child on appropriate conversations and remind them to be guarded with their feelings online. 

Natalie Neysa Alund covers trending news for USA TODAY. Reach her at nalund@usatoday.com and follow her on Twitter @nataliealund.

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