What Is Catfishing? (+How to Avoid Taking the Bait)

Mara Calvello
Mara Calvello  |  June 20, 2019

You probably already know this, but the internet is a scary place.

Sure, so many elements of it can bring us together, but how can we ever really be sure we know who we’re talking to?

The answer is that we can’t, which is why so many people fall victim to catfishing. If you’re just hearing this term for the first time, and need some help understanding what it means, just keep reading.

Catfishing 101

Online frauds and scams happen all the time, and while you may be able to utilize cyber security tactics to prevent you from some, catfishing is a specific kind of scam.

These relationships are frequently romantic relationships, often referred to as romance scams, and it can happen through online dating websites and dating apps, not just through social media platforms.

There is some serious deception happening during the act of catfishing. It’s more than just lying about a couple of inches in height or uploading a photo from five years ago to your online dating profile. It goes much deeper, like using someone else’s photos, their name, and even their place of work. Or, a person can use a false photo and create an entirely fictitious identity.

Is catfishing illegal?

While I in no way support or encourage catfishing, the actual act is not illegal.

That being said. There is usually some form of illegal activity that occurs at some point in the catfishing process. This could be anything from infringement of intellectual property, sexual violations with a minor, fraud by means of obtaining something of benefit, as well as the defamation of impersonation for the use of another’s likeness.

For instance, it can arise through a casual conversation where the person catfishing someone asks the other person for money. If an attempt to acquire money or goods from another person takes place, then he or she is committing fraud.

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Catfishing in the media

You’ve probably heard the term catfishing in popular culture. From a documentary-turned-TV-show to a college football scandal, let’s explore some instances you may have heard of.

Catfish: The TV Show

In 2010, the documentary Catfish took the world by storm as it featured Nev Schulman as he built a romantic relationship with a young woman through Facebook. Spoiler alert. That woman wasn’t who she said she was… and it spawned the hit series spinoff on MTV that began in 2012.

Hosted by Schulman and Max Joseph, the two help others who could be getting catfished as they are emotionally involved with someone they have never met in real life, some for a few months, others for years.

Catfish: The TV Show
Source: Giphy

Each episode follows a different person as Schuman and Joseph investigate into whether the person is being catfished or if the relationship is legitimate. They conduct background checks, arrange (or try to) a face-to-face meeting, and document how both people were impacted by the situation.

Every episode is truly a whirlwind, a trainwreck you can’t look away from, if you will. If you aren’t familiar with the show and only have time for one episode, make it the season two, episode 14, titled Keyonnah & Bow Wow.

Manti Te’o catfishing scandal

Whether you’re into college football or not, you may have heard about Manti Te’o, the University of Notre Dame football star who was catfished in 2012.

I’ll try and make this quick because boy is this story juicy.

Te’o told the media that both his grandmother and his girlfriend had died on September 11, 2012. The girlfriend, Stanford University student Lennay Kekua, had been injured in a car accident and was then discovered to have leukemia through her treatment.

Enter an anonymous email tip in January 2013 that was sent to Deadspin’s sports blog, which launched an investigation into Kekua’s identity. Can you guess where this is going? Only a few weeks later, Deadspin published an article saying Kekua didn’t exist and that a man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo had been impersonating her throughout their entire relationship.

Tuiasosopo turned out to be an acquaintance of Te’o, and the images used of Kekua in the media were actually Diane O’Meara, a classmate of Tuiasosopo.

As soon as Deadspin released their article, Notre Dame issued a statement saying, "Manti had been the victim of what appears to be a hoax in which someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia."

This story got so big that Te’o was interviewed by Katie Couric on January 24, where he maintained his innocence, followed by Tuiasosopo making his own appearance on Dr. Phil on January 31 and February 1. Tuiasosopo eventually confessed to falling in love with Te’o and using Kekua’s identity as an escape.

To say his story took the world by storm is an understatement.

How to avoid getting catfished

Think you’re being catfished? There’s nothing to be ashamed of, as it clearly happens to a lot of people.

One surefire sign is that the person won’t communicate with you on video. It’s in your best bet to use video conferencing software to make sure the person you’re talking to really is the person you’re talking to. Unsure which one to use? Check out our list, and save yourself some heartbreak.

See the Easiest-to-Use Video Conferencing Software →

Don’t be the bait

The moral of the story here is that you shouldn’t trust everyone you talk to online. Are they who they say they are, or are they a woman pretending to be a popular rapper? It may seem like there’s an obvious answer, but catfishing happens more often than you may think. Make sure it doesn’t happen to you.

Now that you know the ins and outs of catfishing, expand your vocabulary even further with these cyber security terms you need to know to protect yourself. Then, check out how far we've come with the history of computers.

Mara Calvello

Mara Calvello

Mara is a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at G2. In her spare time, she's typically at the gym polishing off a run, reading a book from her overcrowded bookshelf, or right in the middle of a Netflix binge. Obsessions include the Chicago Cubs, Harry Potter, and all of the Italian food imaginable.