Online dating can be fun and exciting, but it can also be a playground for identity thieves, hackers and other nasty people. Here are the tell-tale signs of a catfish — or someone online who's pretending to be someone they are not — and how best to approach the people you meet online that seem a little fishy.
Illustration by Olga Kuevda (Shutterstock), image remixed by Nick Criscuolo
Do Your Research And Look For Red Flags
As soon as someone contacts you, your best bet is to do some investigation. It might seem a little creepy, but you have to take care of yourself first. A good offence will be your best defence. Check out their dating profile and make sure it looks like someone spent time on it. Google their name and check if they have social media accounts or anything else that suggests they are a real person.
With a little observation you can spot many of the most obvious red flags:
- They don't have any social media accounts like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Or, by contrast, they have more than one profile on each service.
- They have exceptionally low friend counts on their social media accounts.
- Their photos are only of them in modelling-type shots and not of activities.
- Their photos do not include other people like family or friends.
- There are no tags for any of their photos.
- Constant plays for your sympathy and asking for help.
- They contact you out of the blue outside of your online dating service.
- They declare their love for you quickly and before you've met in person.
Google reverse image search is your best friend when it comes to quick and easy background checks. Right-click their photos, copy the URL, and paste in the box at images.google.com (In Google Chrome you can just right-click the image and do the search from there). If their photos match up with profiles of people with a different name, that's a major red flag.
It's important to look at the text in their profiles too. Start by scanning for constant spelling and grammar mistakes. A few mistakes is normal, but if it's obvious they aren't grasping the language at all, warning bells should be ringing. If the spelling and grammar checks out, but something still doesn't feel right, use Google search again:
- Copy some sentences from their self-summaries, bios or other profile specifics.
- Then paste them in a Google search to see if multiple profiles come up.
The Dr Phil web site suggests that some scammers will use the same information for multiple profiles instead of taking the time to create something new. Or they may have copied somebody's real profile. If you see the exact same phrases and sentences popping up in multiple profiles, you're probably better off backing away (especially if the duplicates are all on the same site).
Ask For A Face-To-Face Meeting Sooner Rather Than Later
If things seem to be going well during your chats, don't hesitate to ask if they want to video chat or meet up in person. If they aren't interested in any face-to-face interaction, but want to keep "learning more about you", it's not a good sign. Nev Schulman, the host and co-creater of Catfish: The TV Show on MTV, explains how asking to meet up can help you avoid a common trap:
If you don't meet up with them in person relatively quickly and it turns into an online relationship rather than meeting on the internet then an in-person relationship, you kind of have to start to step back and say "OK, wait a second, I've asked about meeting up, I've asked about video chatting, it hasn't happened yet... How much am I going to let my emotions get involved with this person who I don't know yet?
It's easy to get fooled into thinking you have an intimate relationship because you're probably messaging, texting and emailing them constantly. You might feel connected to them, but you still don't really know who you are connected to (or if they are even real). You don't necessarily want to open your initial conversation by suggesting meeting up, but if it feels right, sooner is better than later. Setting up a coffee date within the first week of talking with them is totally acceptable if they seem to be into it. It could be even faster if you're both on board. If your chats go on for a few weeks, however, and there's no chance for a meetup in sight, something isn't right.
Keep A Level Head And Protect Your Private Information
As exciting as it can be to hear from someone through your dating service of choice, it's important you don't ditch the simple logic that would normally keep you safe online. Looking for love can do funny things to your head, and it's easy to have your judgement clouded when someone shows their interest in you. As computer forensic professor Jonathan Rajewski explains, they're should be treated like anyone else you've just met:
If you were approached at the store by a complete stranger, would you start a meaningful relationship with them? Would you want your real-life friends to know that you associate with strangers? If you answered "no" then why would you do so online? STRANGER DANGER! If our children understand it, why can't we?
They are a stranger and should be treated as such. It's also important you keep your private information to yourself. Make sure your information on social networks isn't out in the open for anyone to see, and don't give away any information that could lead to your identity being stolen.
A catfish likes to ask a lot of questions to try and learn about you, but they won't give up very much information about themselves. Don't be afraid to fire questions back. If they seem suspicious, ask questions that might give them away. If they say that they live nearby, ask them about local landmarks. If they comment on how much they like the things you talk about, dig a little deeper. Not everyone online is out to get you, but if you see the warning signs, you need to get those shields up.
Lastly, be honest with yourself to keep those blinders away. As the staff at eHarmony explains, if something seems way too good to be true, it probably is:
People can create dream personas online. If your virtual date is a model-slash-anything, boasts about his Lamborghini and claims to have invented a bionic prosthesis, he's probably lying — if "he" even is a he. If anything sounds strange or unbelievable, ask questions. If the person is defensive, you're likely on to something.
Go with your gut and trust your instincts. You can probably tell when someone is trying to pull a fast one on you in real life, and the internet is no different.