How to recognise catfishing

Catfishing refers to the act of setting up a fake identity online. Depending on the intention, this may be a harmless attempt to move around anonymously online or a deliberate attempt to defraud another individual. To protect yourself against malicious catfishing, it’s best not to share confidential information with unknown online contacts and to check profiles for authenticity.

What does the term ‘catfishing’ mean?

Catfishing doesn’t just refer to catching catfish. This is a commonly used term among young people and those who are active online. It has been suggested that the term ‘catfishing’ comes from the world of fishing, where catfish were once used to keep cod active and fresh in containers during transport. While the etymological origin of this word has yet to be verified, catfishing on the internet is anything but a myth. It refers to the act of deliberately creating fake online identities in the form of fake profiles. Catfishing entered the vernacular in 2010 with the release of the US documentary ‘Catfish’, which was produced by catfishing victim Nev Schulman.

Why do people catfish?

The deceptive act is usually carried out by a person who wants to cover their online tracks, however, there can be various other reasons as well. Catfishing can involve profiles with false profile details, a false profile picture or pictures taken from another person’s profile. These attempts at deception can lead to a network of fake profiles, fake friends and fake biographies.

Catfishing is particularly common on social media and on dating sites such as Tinder. Before this term became popular, such profiles were referred to as ‘realfakes’, i.e., fake online identities which seem real. Catfishing is also closely related to a deception method called deepfakes, in which computers use deep learning, machine learning and computer-generated imagery (CGI) to embed people’s faces into fake video recordings.

What types of catfishing are there?

Catfishing can occur in a variety of forms that differ in scope and intent. Catfishing can manifest itself in the following ways:

Romance Scam

This type of catfishing is an attempt to establish a relationship with potential victims using fake profiles on online dating sites or apps. Catfishing is not only carried out by individual users, but also by dating platforms. For example, shady providers can charge for VIP features using attractive catfishing profiles.

Cyberbullying/Gang stalking

People who want to pressure, blackmail, stalk or force someone to do something without being detected can use catfishing tactics to conceal their identity.


Trolling can be carried out by individuals acting alone as well as by elaborate state-funded troll farms. Trolling profiles are created to harass, threaten and pressure users to leave a social media platform. Trolling profiles using false identities will sometimes orchestrate a PR nightmare with the goal of damaging a company’s image or influencing public opinion.


Grooming involves predators using fake profiles with a fake age and personal information to contact minors. This helps them to establish trusting relationships for their own motives.

Phishing and scamming

Fake online profiles may even be imitations of real people such as celebrities, acquaintances, relatives or official organisations. These profiles can be used for phishing and online fraud. Such profiles are used to steal sensitive data, scam money transfers or spread malware.

‘Harmless’ fake profiles

There is not always malicious intent behind fake profiles and catfishing. Sometimes, users may just want to remain unrecognised and anonymous on social media and dating sites. However, it should be noted that most platforms require genuine profile information to use their site. A violation of these terms and conditions is seen as an attempt to deceive and defraud, even if it is without malicious intent.

What is the purpose of catfishing?

There can be several motives for catfishing. One possible motivation is the desire not to disclose private data to social media companies, with users instead providing false profile names and false date of birth information. Malicious motives, however, include:

  • Targeting employees of a specific company to steal sensitive data through social engineering or phishing attacks
  • Tracking a person’s whereabouts and daily habits
  • Blackmail through staged and manipulative flirtations on dating platforms
  • Stalking or even kidnapping
  • Anonymous affairs on dating apps
  • Relationship reasons (jealousy or stalking after a breakup)
  • Pretending to have a false career to conduct shady deals
  • An idealised, unrealistic self-presentation on social media for image reasons or a desire for validation and empathy

How can catfishing profiles be identified?

It’s difficult to prove someone’s identity online. Age queries or specifications in the terms and conditions are not reliable methods for preventing catfishing. Therefore, it’s good to keep an eye out for the following red flags:

  • The profile picture or other pictures in the profile can be found through a Google image search.
  • The profile picture or other pictures in the profile can be found on several different profiles.
  • The profiles of the alleged person differ greatly on different platforms.
  • The profile imitates prominent personalities.
  • A catfish avoids face-to-face meetings or video chats.
  • A catfish tries to build a close friendly or romantic relationship after a short time and insists on meeting.
  • Profiles of friends or families post unusual content or suddenly write to you in unusual ways.
  • The catfish is particularly interested in private information about you, such as your profession, your address or even sensitive payment data.
  • The catfish tries to persuade or urge you to take certain actions, such as subscribing, clicking on a link, filling out a form, sending private photos, transferring money or arranging a meeting.

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How can catfishing be prevented?

Catfishing is often difficult to detect. This is because it is difficult to confirm who we are talking to when we are online. In general, it is important to share as little private and sensitive information as possible with complete strangers or people you have just started talking to.

Follow these tips to prevent catfishing:

  • Break off contact with online contacts who try to “ask you out” or persuade you to do certain things, such as making payments or donations, or meeting in isolated places.
  • Block unknown profiles to prevent a catfish from approaching you with new profiles after you break off contact.
  • Report fake profiles to the social media site or dating platform you are using, or in serious cases, to law enforcement.
  • Follow the tips in our article on how to recognise phishing mails.
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