Online dating is an undeniable part of finding love in the modern world. By the end of 2020, upwards of 32 million Americans were using online dating services, and the industry is expected to surpass one billion dollars in revenue by 2021. But for all of the appeal the online dating world has to offer, it can come with some dangerous pitfalls when it comes to online scammers.
One scam known as catphishing has caused damage to individual victims and even entire businesses. Catphishing is a form of online deception that involves using a fake identity to lure unknowing victims into a relationship with the intent of exploiting them for money or access to private data. Unfortunately, the consequences of these scams are often financially and emotionally devastating to victims—recovering any money they lose is unlikely, and the emotional toll can be difficult to overcome.
To learn about the warning signs you should know to spot a catphisher before they can do any harm, plus tips from cybersecurity experts on how you can best protect yourself in the online dating world, check out our infographic below or click one of the links below to read a specific section.
- What Is Catphishing?
- Why Do People Catphish Others?
- Know the Signs: How to Spot Catphishing
- How to Protect Yourself from Being Catphished
What Is Catphishing?
Catphishing occurs when someone creates a fake identity online to exploit individuals they connect with on dating sites, usually by manipulating them for financial gain. The term “catphishing” stems from the cybercrime term “phishing,” which is when someone uses a fraudulent identity to obtain personal information like passwords or credit card details from an unknowing victim online.
Catphishing has become increasingly prevalent among dating sites, where targets seeking romantic relationships may be more emotionally vulnerable—and thus more susceptible to falling for a catphisher’s lies.
Why Do People Catphish Others?
There are a variety of motivations that could drive someone to perform a catphishing scam, the most common being financial gain. A catphisher might swindle their victim into a seemingly great online relationship, ultimately working towards getting the victim to send them money.
A catphisher may also be after personal information or access to certain data they can use to commit crimes such as fraud or identity theft. Catphishers may be attempting to breach data from a particular company, and they will target victims who are employed at that company to gain access to secure information.
A catphisher might also target victims to steal their photos and personal information to be used in future catphishing schemes.
Know the Signs: How to Spot Catphishing
Dealing with strangers online will always have its risks, but plenty of people have had success with online dating and found love. That said, it can be tricky to decipher between a genuinely budding online relationship and one that’s masked with the intent to exploit you. If you’re making connections in the online dating world, make sure you’re aware of these warning signs that can help you spot a catphisher before they can do any harm.
They Ask for Personal Information
If you’re getting to know someone in an online dating context, it’s natural to ask questions about yourselves as a way to get to know each other—that’s a given! However, you might be able to sense a potential catphisher by what kind of questions they’re asking and how soon into the conversation they ask them.
An immediate red flag is if they ask for highly personal information very early on in the relationship. For example, asking about what you do seems innocent enough, but if they follow up with wanting to know what company you work for and how much you earn, you should tread lightly. There’s no reason they’d need to know such personal details, and it’s best not to reveal information about your salary or the company you work for.
They Cancel In-Person Plans Last Minute
A telltale sign of a catphisher at work is if you make plans to meet up face to face, and they cancel at the last minute. They could use any number of excuses—car trouble, family emergency, or work—to get out of an in-person meeting.
Of course, not everyone you meet online is looking to scam you, and last-minute cancellations happen to everyone. But if you make plans to reschedule and they ultimately end up canceling again, this should raise a red flag. Never being able to meet in person is a classic component of a catphisher’s schemes, and perpetually canceling plans is cause for suspicion.
They Seem Too Good to Be True
If you’ve been talking to someone online and everything about them seems way too good to be true, it probably is. This could be anything from a high-status job they claim to have (or something that seems a bit out there, like claiming to be a professional model or bodybuilder) to promising extravagant gifts or trips the two of you would take.
This one can be tough to diagnose, but always trust your gut. Catphishers will often make grandiose claims or promises to lure you into their trap, so if anything gives you even the slightest sense of concern, trust your instincts. The same goes for their profile photos: if every picture you see looks like it’s straight out of a magazine, there’s a chance they’re not the person they say they are.
They’re Excessively Charming or Flattering
Some people like to lay it on thick with the flattery, especially when trying to impress someone online. But there’s a line between being charming and being excessive, and it’s not uncommon for a catphisher to extend too much in the way of flattery and charm in the hopes of making you fall for them.
A good rule of thumb is to look at your online relationships in the same way as your real-life ones. If you went on a first date with someone in person and they told you they loved you by the end of the night, it would be very off-putting. These lines can get blurred when it comes to chatting with people online, but be wary of the kind of excessive flattery that wouldn’t add up if you were sitting with them in person.
They Speak of Sudden Financial Difficulties
If you’re having conversations with someone online and they start talking about sudden financial hardships they’re dealing with, proceed with caution. Catphishers are notorious for spinning wild tales of all kinds, and if they start telling you about a bizarre situation that’s now causing them trouble financially, you should take this as a red flag.
If you think about it, most people looking to make romantic connections usually want to put their best foot forward and make a good impression. Divulging all the details of their recent money troubles is hardly a way to impress a potential mate, and someone trying to land a date or an authentic relationship likely wouldn’t let you in on how broke they are.
If you’re talking to someone who wants to make sure you know how much financial trouble they’re in (and eventually, how they could really use some help getting out of it), you can take it as a sign of a potential catphisher trying to prey on you and your wallet.
They Refuse to Video Chat
Similar to when someone dodges every attempt to meet with you face to face, refusing to participate in a video chat could also indicate that someone is up to no good. If you’ve suggested a video meeting and they cancel or refuse more than once, it’s cause for suspicion.
Meeting over video is a common way for online daters to get to know each other better before taking the step to meet in person. It’s not an unusual request, and if someone repeatedly refuses to show their face but still wants to connect with you online, then it’s safe to assume they’ve got something to hide and could be targeting you in a scam.
Their Social Accounts Have Minimal Activity
An easy way to sniff out a catphisher is by taking a look at their social media accounts. Since catphishers operate by using fake or fraudulent identities, they typically won’t have very robust social media accounts. Give the person a search online and check out any associated social profiles. If you can’t find any, that’s a potential warning sign right off the bat.
If they do have profiles but they’re sparse with activity or information, it could be a red flag. Make note of their friends or followers and check out some of their profiles as well—do they seem like real people with normal account activity? Some catphishers stuff their accounts with bots or fake followers as a way to appear more legitimate.
How to Protect Yourself from Being Catphished
While looking for love online will always come with a measure of risk, there are steps you can take to better protect yourself and your data, and lower the chances of falling victim to a catphishing scam.
1. Don’t Share Personal Information Online
This one might seem like a given, but catphishers can be all too convincing and have you handing over personal information that you should never share with anyone, let alone a stranger online. Start by keeping your full name private until you can meet up in person. In addition, avoid sharing any other personal details such as:
- Your birthday
- Your home address
- Your place of work
- Your personal email address
- Your phone number
- Any credit card or bank account details
- Information about your children or who you live with
- Your salary
Additionally, it’s wise to do a Google search of yourself and take a look at what details about you are already floating around online. Phone numbers and email addresses might be public if you’ve used them to sign up for various accounts online, and that makes it easy for catphishers to collect personal information about you. Remove anything you find that you wouldn’t want a stranger to see and potentially use to exploit you.
2. Run an Image Search
A great way to nail a potential catphisher is by running a reverse image search on their profile picture. A reverse image search will surface every (public) appearance of the same image found online. Since catphishers often have multiple fake online identities, running a quick reverse image search can help you detect one early on.
Using tools such as TinEye, Yandex, or a Google reverse image search, you can enter the image URL of someone’s profile picture and see where else it’s showing up on the web. If there are different names, demographics, or other personal information associated with the image than what’s displayed on someone’s dating profile, you’ve identified a catphisher.
3. Ask for Proof of Identity
This might be one of the easiest ways to protect yourself from getting involved with a catphisher. If you’ve started talking with someone and things seem to be going well, ask them for some kind of proof of identity. Take it as a red flag if they’re reluctant or outright refuse.
4. Check Out Their Social Profiles
Whether you’re fishing out a scam or not, it’s always a good idea to do some research on a potential mate you met online. Take a look at their social media profiles for some basic information (and remember to look out for questionable activity on their accounts, or lack thereof if it’s a newly created account being used in a scam). To potentially learn more about what they do for work, you can give them a search on LinkedIn. Checking their social media accounts is a good way to determine if the details shared with you about their life line up with what you see on their social profiles.
5. Never Open Attachments
A common maneuver among catphishers is to send their victims messages or emails containing a malicious file attachment. Some catphishers plant malware in your computer by way of what’s called spoofing—when a supposedly trusted source seeks to gain access to your personal data and information. That’s why you must never open anything sent to you in the form of a link or attachment from someone you met online, as it could compromise your privacy and online security.
6. Create a Separate Email Address
A wise and simple safety measure to exercise in the online dating world is to create an email address that’s separate from your personal one. If the online dating platform you’re using connects to an email account, creating one solely for online dating purposes can better protect your privacy and help you control what data others can find about you online. If you refrain from using your personal email address, it’s less likely a potential scammer can dig up information about you.
7. Install Proper Protections on Your Devices
Investing in cybersecurity software is one of the defenses you could implement to keep scammers and catphishers at bay. If you think your computer has been infected with malware, there are steps you can take to remove it with the right protection software installed. At the very least, it’s also a good idea to install a free antivirus on your computer to protect you from any future catphishers you may encounter in the online dating world.
8. Trust Your Instincts
Sometimes, your instincts can be one of your best defenses when it comes to protecting yourself from a potential catphisher. If something doesn’t feel right to you, there’s probably a reason.
If at any time during your communication with someone online you start to get a bad feeling or the feeling that something is off, don’t ignore it—it could save you from a potentially dangerous situation. Always listen to your gut, and if you think you could be in dangerous territory, no matter how small the feeling may be, it’s always best to cut contact immediately and move on.
While plenty of people have successfully found romance online, just as many have been the unfortunate victims of a carefully planned catphishing scheme they didn’t see coming. Educating yourself on the warning signs and common tactics of catphishers can help protect yourself and your personal data from the pitfalls of the online dating world. With the right antivirus software, you can further secure your digital life and protect yourself from malware and dangerous scammers online.