In internet jargon, a catfish is a user who assumes a false identity for purposes of deception. A catfish might use their fake identity to start a relationship with someone, or it may be used for more nefarious purposes, like cyberbullying, identity theft, financial fraud, or violent crime.
The term “catfishing” was first popularized by the 2010 Catfish documentary, in which executive producer Nev Shulman meets and develops a romantic relationship via Facebook with someone who he believes is a 19-year-old woman named Megan. In reality, Megan was actually a 40-year-old housewife named Angela who had been operating the fake Facebook account the entire time. The film was later adapted into a subsequent series for MTV.
The phenomenon of catfishing existed long before the documentary coined the term. Since the dawn of the internet, people have assumed false identities in online spaces including social media platforms, chat rooms, and bulletin boards, as well as classifieds sites like Craigslist. In some cases, law enforcement officials also use catfishing as a way to catch cybercriminals.
The awareness of catfishing aligned with the evolution of internet literacy and education. Most users today are more aware of catfishing red flags and are therefore more guarded against potential catfishing situations. However, many catfishing tactics have become more sophisticated with the rise of deepfakes, augmented reality and virtual reality.
In most cases, the motivation for catfishing is related to low self-esteem. It’s easy for someone who doesn’t feel comfortable in their own skin to assume a new identity as a way to gain more perceived confidence. In some cases, however, the deceit is motivated by criminal intent. Scamming, stalking, and more violent crimes are more easily perpetrated when the criminal is able to create a fictional identity and get their victims to let their guard down.
There are a few red flags that can point toward someone acting as a catfish. Individually, these behaviors are not immediately indicative of a catfish, but if an online persona exhibits multiple of these characteristics, it may be a warning that they are a catfish. Behaviors to be aware of include: