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27 Mar 2017

Catfishing: How to spot when it’s happening to you

The Urban Dictionary defines a ‘catfish’ as: someone who pretends to be someone they’re not by using Facebook or other social media platforms to create false identities.

The term was popularised by the 2010 documentary film by the same name where it follows the online relationship between Yaniv 'Nev' Schulman and a young woman named Megan.

The film reveals how the supposed ‘young woman’ behind the screen is in fact a mother, who had stolen her daughter's identity in a bid to initiate an online relationship.

Using social media accounts such as Facebook to create additional accounts, ‘Megan’ used these to interact with each other in an attempt to create the appearance of a legitimate network.

In a digital age where people do everything from grocery shopping to banking online, it is now also commonplace to utilise online platforms such as social media sites, chat rooms and even messaging services such as Whatsapp to communicate with others.

Social media sites are now so in tune with people’s online history that they are able to ‘suggest’ friends and ‘people you may know’ based on common education, employment history and ‘mutual friends’ on the site.

When there are over 1.7 billion Facebook users and an estimated 81 million of these accounts are fake profiles - how do you know what is real and what isn’t?

The idea of a person pretending to be someone they are not is an extremely hot topic within the media, with more and more people falling victim to grooming online and identity theft.

We teach children from a young age not to speak to strangers and reinforce the important lessons about staying safe, but are the same methods being reinforced for online activity?

Earlier this month the BBC reported that a 42 year old man in Australia, utilised multiple social media and online communication platforms to masquerade as the Canadian singer Justin Bieber in order to target, groom and gain explicit images from children.

An international investigation into the extent of these crimes has been launched and the man has been charged with 931 charges so far with 157 alleged victims across the globe.

Online predators and criminals are now able to utilise online platforms and social media tools to provide themselves with a smokescreen and target people where they feel safe.

It is evident in today’s environment that the internet has created the reputation of a place where anonymity is permitted.

Whilst social media sites encourage greater than ever before degrees of transparency, there is an increasing tendency to only show what we want people to see when crafting our online identity.

A catfish banks on this shortsightedness of online users and utilises online tools to shape their profile in order to entice a certain type of user.

The manipulation can be so subtle that we don’t even know it's happening. Catfish tend to create fictional profiles by using fabricated life stories and photographs of unsuspecting victims.

They add life experiences, jobs, friends and photographs to these fake accounts to make them appear more genuine and give off a persona that they believe is desirable.

Fake accounts are often used to spark online relationships and unknowing victims can reveal sensitive personal information to people online that they have never met - all the while, with no idea that the person behind the screen is completely different.

Some people use the smokescreen of online social media platforms as a technique to obtain personal information from their victims and use this to commit identity fraud.

Catfish will go to great extents to hide their real identity and with so many aspects of people’s personal lives now readily available online, it can be very difficult to tell the imposters from the genuine accounts.

Some telltale signs that people are lying can include them not being willing to meet you in person, refusing to use video chat, asking lots of questions about your personal information and unwillingness to share evidence of who they are with you.

If you are in an online relationship or friendship with a person you have never met before, ask yourself these questions - it could be happening to you.

What should you do if you think you are being catfished?

If you are concerned and think that someone you are speaking to online is a catfish, it can be hard to know what action to take.

Firstly, stop talking to them and make sure that you don’t give them any of your personal information.

You should report the account to the hosting site to ensure that they know what is going on and can investigate further to find out if the account is genuine or not.

Have you ever been the victim of catfishing? Let us know by leaving your comments below.

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