MAY 22, 2024 / Scams

How to prevent catfishing

The online world is capable of connecting us at levels that were unimaginable just a few decades ago. Want to find that childhood friend, that old work colleague, that new job or even love online? It’s entirely feasible, and millions of people do just that every day.

However, wherever there’s social activity, there’s money to be made, and that means scammers come flocking, by way of catfishing.

While it is about luring in in the unwary, this has little to do with sitting in boats trying to catch heavily whiskered water creatures. Instead, you’re the prey, and the catfisher is trying to lure you in with a false identity.

What is catfishing?

In the online sense, catfishing is most simply described as engaging with another person under some kind of false identity. It’s often tied into romance scams, where someone pretends to be your perfect match in order to fool you into providing intimate photos or personal details for financial gain, although it’s not exclusively to do with the pursuit of love.

If you’ve ever received one of those dodgy emails from a “Nigerian Prince” claiming to want your help to move millions of dollars, that’s catfishing too. It’s not very subtle of course, because there’s relatively little effort put into those scams. Just in case you didn’t know, African princes aren’t in the real-world habit of trying to sneak out billions just for you, and neither is Bill Gates. That scam has been around for decades now, but it still manages to lure in the unwary from time to time.

More modern catfishing scams try to fill in further details to appear authentic, offering up what appear to be genuine details, common interests or goals as your own in order to gain your trust.

Once you’ve decided that you trust the catfisher, that’s when they’ll start asking for more personal details, possibly for money or intimate photos. Catfishing scams are usually long tail scams, because it can take serious time to gain trust online. Just because you’ve been chatting online with your new “friend” for months or in some cases years doesn’t mean that they’re on the level.

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How much of a problem is catfishing?

Catfishing is, sadly, quite lucrative for scammers. If you just look at romance scams, the ACCC’s Scamwatch reports that Australians have lost at least $19,434,745 to romance scammers alone, and that’s just based off the scams reported to them. It’s highly likely, given the personal nature of those scams that many victims might be too embarrassed to report them in the first place.

Unexpected money scams – like the Nigerian Prince scam mentioned above – also fall under catfishing a lot of the time, and Scamwatch reckons that’s another $3,184,716 lost already this year.

While it’s comforting for your own ego to think that you’d never be fooled that way, the reality is that this is something that happens to real people in Australia, all the time.

That’s why it’s wise to be careful online, because it absolutely could happen to you.

How can I protect myself from catfishing online? Is everyone fake?

To answer the second question first, no. The Internet works because billions of people use it every day. It’s absolutely possible to connect or reconnect with friends, loved ones and lovers in an online context.

However, you do need to be careful when interacting with anyone “new” online. It’s even wise to apply some of this thinking with folks you think you know in the real world, although that’s usually a case of an impersonation scam rather than catfishing.

So, what can you do in a practical sense?

1. Be careful what you share online, and where

Most catfishing victims report that social media is often where they first got contacted by their catfisher, who seemed to know a lot about them.

That’s often because there’s a trend – and sometimes social pressure – to share everything from photos to personal updates across social media services. If your service of choice isn’t carefully locked down for privacy, those are details that may be apparent to a wider range of folks than you realised.

2. Go slow with new online friends

It’s great to meet new people and expand your social circle, for sure. But if your new friend suggests that they’ve fallen madly in love with you after a short period of time, it’s a solid red flag that they might be less than 100% honest. If it is true, there’s plenty of time to let a relationship properly blossom – and for you to check and ensure that they’re actually a real person all along.

3. Beware the sob story

The Nigerian Prince scam works because it appeals to base greed, but the reverse of it is your new “friend” asking for money to deal with some kind of emergency. You don’t want to be heartless with your close friend or potential romantic prospect, so you wire across the money… and you’ve been scammed.

This is not to say that you can never help people out if that’s your style. It absolutely pays to do your research and check bona fides first. If your “friend” asks for pictures of you but never provides their own “because their camera is broken”, that’s an obvious red flag. Even if they do send you a picture, it’s wise to run it through Google’s reverse image search to see if it pops up elsewhere under a different name.

Some catfishing types will be bold enough to use photos of major celebrities – because they’re attractive people – hoping the victim won’t notice. Is it really likely that Brad Pitt needs you to send him $500 because his car exhaust is broken?

4. Be very careful with picture requests

In one sense, what consenting adults get up to in their own time and on their own devices is their own business, and that includes sending intimate pictures if that’s what you’re into.

However, it becomes far more complex when you’re talking about an online paramour, precisely because you’re giving over a lot of trust around images that you absolutely do lose full control of once they’re off your own phone. That’s why it’s absolutely paramount to ensure that whoever you’re sending that kind of content to is who they say they are.

5. Take screenshots

It might feel a bit like snooping, but it’s wise to keep a few records of any new online friends, especially if you’re starting to have doubts about them.

That’s because most social media services, online dating platforms and other places where you might be catfished typically have reporting mechanisms for this kind of activity. If you report a potential catfisher, it may limit their access to operate on that platform, potentially saving others from heartbreak or financial ruin. The odds are very good that the same fake identity is being used across many people at once, because it raises the scammer’s odds of making money along the way.

More cyber security tips and tricks to help to keep you safe online:

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Alex Kidman
A multi-award winning journalist, Alex has written about consumer technology for over 20 years. He has written and edited for virtually every Australian tech publication including Gizmodo, CNET, PC Magazine, Kotaku and more.