If the term 'catfish' isn't in your dating vernacular, you might just be the only one. Catfishing became a cultural phenomenon from the moment online dating emerged a couple of decades ago — so much so, that there are now books, podcasts and TV shows dedicated to the concept.
From the first-ever dating website to the latest apps and Instagram DMs, catfishes have been always been rife, and over time, with the advancements in the digital world, they've become more and more insidious. But what is catfishing, really, and how can you tell if it's happening to you?
To put it simply, catfishing is when someone you're chatting to online isn't exactly who they say they are. They might be lying about their gender, age or appearance, or worst case scenario, faking absolutely everything about themselves. While some instances of catfishing can be innocent enough — someone may just feel insecure about the way they look and want to portray a 'better', more elevated version of themselves — but others can be abusive, manipulative and ultimately fraudulent.
Catfishing is also distinct from more temporary or harmless online trolling in that it involves the catfish forming a relationship with you and carrying it out over an extended period of time. Some of the more popular catfish investigation TV and podcast series' (like Catfish: The TV Show and Sweet Bobby, respectively) show that people can be in an online relationship with a catfish for weeks to years.
But regardless of the time spent in the relationship, or even the intention behind the catfish's actions, finding out your relationship is built on lies and deception can be completely heartbreaking.
So, in order to avoid any more heartache or potential danger, here are a few signs to look out for that you might be getting catfished.
1. They ask you for money
This is one of the most obvious, and dangerous, signs you might be getting catfished, and is technically defined as romance fraud. From scammers to money launderers, this catfish will be using your love and loyalty to them to get you to send them cash. Obviously the larger the request, the more of a red flag it is, but we should always be wary of sending money to anyone we've met online or at least haven't met in person, regardless of the amount.
2. Their photos are someone else's
A quick Google reverse-image search could help you to figure out if your online partner's photos are actually theirs or not. A large majority of catfishes won't be using their real picture, and so will likely have taken their selfies and photos from someone else's social media page.
If your partner's photos appear on anyone else's Instagram or Facebook page, this could be a major red flag that at the very least, they don't look the way you think they do and worse, they're not who they say they are at all. Worse again, is the fact they've gone to the lengths of stealing someone else's images to project a certain persona.
Speaking of photos and selfies, a catfish will only have so many images of the person they're impersonating. If they can't seem to ever send you a spur-of-the-moment selfie or if they ever send the same photo more than once, this could mean they don't have any other fake images to share with you.
3. They won't take phone or video calls
If your relationship consists of texting and emailing alone, and nothing that identifies their face or voice, this could be a sign that they're a catfish. If they're lying about who they are and what they look like, they're probably not going to want you to see or hear them, as this could easily end up blowing their fake persona.
4. They keep cancelling plans to meet IRL
If you're in a long-term relationship with someone online, it's very likely that, at some point, you'll want to meet them in person — but a catfish is never going to let that happen, for obvious reasons. To make sure they don't damage the relationship, the catfish will likely say, many times, that they can't wait to meet you in person one day. They might even go to the trouble of arranging a meetup. But when the day finally comes, they're going to cancel, and they're going to keep cancelling every single time you try to meet them.
Most likely, they'll come up with some pretty extravagant reasons as to why they can't make it, designed to make you feel bad or make you more understanding of their constant cancellations. But if someone you're dating online won't ever commit to meeting you in real life, it's a red flag.
5. They don't have many followers
If their profiles aren't actually a "real person", or at least not who they actually are, then their friends, family and people the catfish actually knows in real life aren't going to be following it — which means their number of followers is probably going to be pretty low. If they're only using this profile to engage with you and they can only post so much with the fake material they have, it also stands to reason that they wouldn't be chalking up a large following.
6. They can't get their story straight
Of course, a lot of people may fib or exaggerate online and that doesn't automatically make them a catfish. But if your partner can't seem to get their facts straight about the stuff they've told you about themselves, it could mean they're just making a lot of it up.
It's also a good idea to be wary of anyone online whose life just seems overly extraordinary or successful, and they don't seem to have a lot of evidence to back it up. This kind of behaviour has been coined "blowfishing" — a relative of catfishing. Sadly, the dangerous allure of a catfish, or blowfish, is that they often seem too good to be true.
7. They "love bomb" you
If they're telling you that they love you, they can't live without you and engaging in otherwise over-the-top romantic relationship behaviour, it might be a red flag. Of course, we don't want to be too sceptical of love and affection to the point we immediately condemn anyone who professes their love to us. But the unfortunate truth is that a catfish will give you a lot of attention, shower you with compliments and make you feel amazing so that you don't go anywhere — basically, they'll "love bomb" you.
While it can feel incredible and wonderful to find love online and we shouldn't abstain from online dating completely, the reality is we all have to be on the lookout for ungenuine people. Having a high level of digital literacy that can help to ensure your safety is crucial. And if you do fall for a catfish's lies, don't beat yourself up about it — it can happen to anyone.
Just know that despite all the lies and scams online, there is true love to be found there, and with a little wisdom and scrutiny you'll be much better off finding it.