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What is ‘Catfishing’ & How Can we Protect Ourselves?

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The term ‘catfishing’ originates from when live cod were shipped from North America to Asia, the fish's inactivity in their transportation tanks resulted in only mushy flesh reaching the destination. Fishermen found that putting catfish amongst the cod kept them active, and thus ensured the quality of the fish for the duration of the journey. But catfishing on social media is a different story. Catfishing is an increasingly popular method of social media deception and impersonation, often performed by teenagers and children without even knowing the full impact that their actions have.

Why do people 'Catfish'?

  • Build fake romantic relationships to fulfil insecurities and a lack of self-worth in themselves
  • Gain your trust to then defraud you, often successively over a long period of time (long term high value scams)
  • Be a cyber bully and get a form of self-gratification from it
  • Groom children (paedophiles and sexual predators)
  • Cyber stalk ex-partners, lovers or people they are infatuated with

Case Study: Megan Meier

13-year-old Megan Meier was lured in by a catfish going by the name of Josh Evans in 2006. After falling into what she thought was a genuine romantic relationship online with Josh on social media site MySpace, Megan fell victim to awful online bullying.

To abate any suspicions of why they couldn’t meet in real life, Josh explained he was home schooled and had no phone so he couldn’t easily see her in person or speak on the phone. A month after the first friend request from Josh, Megan receives a message from Josh saying that he heard she was horrible to her friends and that he doesn’t want to know her anymore. He kept posting hateful messages on social media websites for everyone to see and even shared some of her messages to him with others.

Her mother, Tina, immediately noticed something was wrong and Megan told her what happened. She asked her daughter to log out of MySpace but came back later to find Megan retaliating to the horrible things that were being posted about her, shocked at her own daughter’s language and an argument ensued.

Megan later went upstairs and hung herself in her cupboard. She died the next day, three weeks before her 14th birthday.

After Megan’s death, a neighbour met with Megan’s parents and told them that Josh Evans never existed and that his entire online identity had been created by one of their neighbours, Lori Drew – the mother of a daughter who was on-off friends with Megan. The neighbour had created the profile to know what Megan was saying about her daughter when she was not around but it eventually got used by a number of adults wanting to stick a bad word in about Megan. No criminal convictions were brought forward because there were no laws criminalising this kind of behaviour at the time.

Other catfishing scenarios have gone further than cyber bullying and been used for the sole intention of child grooming. There’s the infamous case of 18-year-old Anthony Stancl who back in 2009, fabricated two false identities of two girls on Facebook.

Case Study: Anthony Stancl

Anthony used these false profiles to start online relationships with boys from his high school. Anthony, posing as an attractive girl, convinced his schoolmates to send naked and explicit pictures of themselves to him. Stancl, through the girls’ profiles, then tried to get almost half of those boys to meet with a ‘male friend’ (himself in real life) and let Stancl perform sexual acts on them. When some of the boys refused, the ‘girls’ threatened to release the pictures and videos onto the internet. Seven boys from his school were blackmailed into this, allowing Stancl to perform sex acts on them, or being coerced into performing sex acts on him. The police found over 300 sexually explicit images of male teens on his computer from these encounters. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison in early 2010.

OK, that’s enough scary stories...

How can we protect our families from 'Catfishing'?

The best way to protect ourselves is not necessarily to prove that someone is indeed trying to catfish you, but to simply establish whether or not they are who they say they are. Catfish almost invariably create false personas to operate under and as such, there are ways we can test to see whether the persona they are showing us online is actually them or if it is indeed a fabrication. So, let’s look at a few techniques we can use to validate someone’s identity online…

How to Validate Someone’s Identity Online

  • Prove their identity with a Video Chat Service. In today’s modern age, it is perfectly normal to ask someone online to prove who they say they are. The likes of Facetime or Skype make it very difficult to disguise your real identity and voice. You don’t necessarily need to ask to see their passport but video calling them should be enough to determine they are indeed who their social media profile says they are. Someone refusing to have a quick video chat to validate their identity should be an immediate red-flag. If they say it’ll be awkward, reassure them it is for validation purposes only. You can also mute the audio and chat via the messaging if that helps too.
  • Spot the tell-tale signs that someone has malicious intentions;
    • They ask you to keep secrets from your friends/parents.
    • They provide excuses for why they cannot meet in real life.
    • They request information such as photos/videos/etc. Always ask yourself, why do they need this?
    • They ask for money, backed with heart wrenching stories of misfortune.
  • Validate their back story using free and publicly available information. Google the person and check things that they’ve told you. A complete lack of digital footprint nowadays should be suspicious. You can check marriages/divorces, property ownership, company ownership and even criminal records. There are many free and some small fee-based services, such as Spokeo you can use to assist you. Use http://exi.regex.info/exif.cgi to help identify fake profiles. If someone says they took a photo in Scotland but it actually shows Nigeria, you know something fishy is up!
  • Google what they say to you in conversations. Many scams are run on a mass scale by large criminal gangs. They work very much like call centres do – scammers have scripts that they use so the likelihood is, if it’s a scam, the conversation wording they’re using is a copy and paste from a script and has been posted online before by other victims.
  • Check the suspect’s profile for common signs it is fake;
    • Do their photos look like public ‘stock’ images? Download their profile picture (right click and select ‘Save As’) and perform a reverse Google image search - https://reverse.photos. This lesser known form of searching uses images and can be quite revealing. If you find they’ve used a photo from someone else’s social media account or a stock image website, you know immediately they are trying to hide their real identity!
    • Is the profile linked to other social media accounts (e.g. friends with) that are very similar in the photos, time created and content? These would be indicators they were all written by the same person.
    • Check to see if other people are tagged in their photos. This can help provide assurance that other people are genuinely affiliated to this person. Be aware that you should be looking for a lot of tagging – some catfisher’s will create numerous fake profiles and then link them all together creating the illusion that each profile is genuine!
    • Typically, catfishing profiles will struggle to build a network of connections because the person is purely fictional, so, if the profile has a very small number of connections and has been around for a long time then be weary. To give you a benchmark to work against, the average Facebook profile in 2017 had 338 friends .

Other practical tips...

  • Avoid usernames that suggest your name, age, location or interest. These can help catfisher’s select their targets. Usernames should be generic so nothing can be deduced from them. Avoid suggestive usernames like ‘SweetCheeks01’.
  • Be suspicious if someone private messages you out of the blue. Encourage your kids to only connect online with people they actually know and have met in real life. Parents can actively help their children build relationships with people at school and in their community so they will be less reliant on online friends.
  • Educate your kids on the impacts of disclosing too much personal information on social media sites. Even seemingly ‘obvious’ or ‘basic’ personal information (e.g. school, home address, photos, etc.) can be used by catfisher’s to build rapport with unsuspecting victims.
  • Stay in Control & Beware of Excuses! You should always be able to feel like you can communicate in whatever way you wish. So, if you want to chat on skype or talk to them in person, you should be able to. If they are constantly making excuses, this should be a warning sign.
  • Never send money to someone you never met in person. Goes without saying but these criminals are experts in emotional manipulation. They create scenarios designed to sweep us up in the moment which can make us think irrationally and without perspective. If unsure, ask a friend or relative about the situation – they will be able to provide an objective view, removed from any emotional attachment.

We’ve covered off what catfishing is and how we can validate people’s identities online to help prevent falling victim to these kinds of hoaxes and scams.

Get in touch if you’ve used any other techniques not included in this post that helped validate someone’s identity online!

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