A concept of a young woman having an online date with a fake boyfriend.

Have you ever talked to someone online, and then found out that they were lying about who they were? Then you might have been catfished. The term is often applied to fraudulent romantic relationships, but it isn’t always about romance.

What Is Catfishing?

Catfishing is the act of deceiving another person online with a fake account, identity, photos, and other details about their life. It is most commonly found on social networking sites and dating sites. A “catfish” refers to the person performing the deception.

Because of the widespread popularity of the term, catfishing has also become synonymous with simple acts of misrepresentation or deception.

Why Do People Catfish?

The most common reason to catfish someone is for wish fulfillment. In these types of relationships, the catfish and the person they catfish will form an emotional connection with each other over the internet, even forming committed relationships and partnerships without ever actually seeing the other person.

Catfishing does not necessarily have to be romantic, either. There are many examples of being catfished by prospective friends or business partners. The scam ends when one person discovers the extent of the catfish’s deception, typically upon being prompted by other people in their life, such as friends and family, to investigate further.

An even darker side to catfishing is those who scam others for monetary gain. The catfisher will pose as someone in need of help for something like a family emergency or medical expenses, then solicit others for money. A common type of scam involves asking someone for money to fly so that they can meet up, and then ghosting them afterward.

Lastly, catfishing is sometimes used for good. There are cases of people, including law enforcement, using catfish accounts in order to catch criminals or predators in the act.

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How Catfishing Happens

A concept image of an internet dating scam.
Katja Frischbutter/Shutterstock.com

There are always two people in relationships that involve catfishing: the “catfish” who lies about their name, age, gender, identity, appearance, and various personal details, and the “catfished” person that believes all of these things and forms a relationship built entirely on lies.

Typically, the catfish will set up social media accounts posing as someone else, either by creating a fake identity or by using another person’s information. They will collect various photos to display, litter their profile with fake details, and craft various stories about themselves.

They will begin to form a relationship with someone else while posing as their fake identity. A common thread among catfish is that they will make up various scenarios to get the other person emotionally involved. Catfish also actively try to prevent meeting with their partners, completely refusing to do video calls and in-person meetups.

Why Is It Named After a Catfish?

In 2010, filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman released their documentary Catfish, about a man named Nev who starts a relationship with a woman, Angela, who was posing as someone named Megan. The film is credited with coining the term and starting the entire cultural conversation about catfishing. It was later spun-off into the hit MTV show, “Catfish: The TV Show.”

The term itself refers to a method that fishermen used to keep cod intact when they shipped the fish long distances. Catfish were placed in the tank to keep the cod active, which preserved the quality of the fish. Therefore, it is said that people who “catfish” are there to make the lives of other people more exciting.

“I’m Going to Catfish”

Thanks to the movie and the eventual TV show, “catfishing” has become a cultural phenomenon all on its own. However, aside from its dark, original definition of someone fooling others with entirely fake identities and photos, it has also taken on a slightly more innocent meaning.

A “catfish” can be used to refer to anyone who uses slightly altered information on an online dating profile or a filter on their photos, often to make themselves look better. For example, you might say you’re “catfishing” someone if you put an age that’s two years older than you really are. You could even say that you’re “catfishing” if you were whitening your teeth in a photo editor.

The term has become synonymous with changing your personal information in any way. Even putting a slightly misleading profile picture of yourself may be considered catfishing by some. When it comes to forming relationships with other people, even online, building trust is essential. Therefore, we don’t suggest obfuscating yourself unless it’s for privacy reasons.

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Profile Photo for Vann Vicente Vann Vicente
Vann Vicente has been a technology writer for four years, with a focus on explainers geared towards average consumers. He also works as a digital marketer for a regional e-commerce website. He's invested in internet culture, social media, and how people interact with the web.
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