What Is Catfishing?

Catfishing occurs when someone pretends to be someone else online to lure the victim into a fake romantic relationship. This is often a means to extort money from the victim but can also be used to obtain sexual favors, bully, or gratify personal emotional desires. People of all ages fall prey to catfishing, but the number of teens being targeted has grown exponentially.

When Nev Schulman drove from New York to Michigan in 2010 to meet his online girlfriend for the first time, he learned that she did not exist. Instead, he found a 40-year-old housewife posing as a 19-year-old girl. This incident inspired the MTV series “Catfish,” which documents similar romance scams.

The term “catfishing” is used to describe a romantic scam wherein an online stranger poses as someone else for the purpose of luring the victim into a fake romantic relationship. The term “catfish” became popular after Nev Schulman’s experience, according to The Washington Post.

In 2021, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center received 24,299 reports from victims of catfishing, with losses totaling more than $956 million. While catfishing can affect all age groups, teens saw the largest increase in victimization from 2017 to 2021, according to Social Catfish, an online investigation service.

Why are teens especially vulnerable to catfishing?

Humans are wired for social connectivity, and this is especially true of adolescents. One of the most significant factors leading to social media addiction is the involvement of the brain’s reward system in response to social cues. 

Adolescence is the period in which peer acceptance becomes highly prioritized. While social rewards activate the neurotransmitter dopamine, being in love results in an even stronger response involving another neurotransmitter, oxytocin, also known as the love hormone.

According to Psychology Today, being in love decreases activity in the regions of the brain that control judgment and skepticism. “In other words, the experience of being in love arguably increases our feeling of reward around our beloved, while at the same time decreasing our critical faculties directed towards the objects of our affection.” 

This creates the ideal scenario for catfishing regardless of a person’s age, but for teens, this vulnerability is combined with a heightened need for acceptance. It is important for parents to understand that catfishing appeals to human biology in a way that makes even the most cautious, intelligent adults susceptible.

What can parents do to prevent catfishing?

The most important preventive measure parents can take is to talk to their teens about catfishing and foster an environment of open communication. The safer your teen feels talking to you, the more likely your teen will keep you informed about online interactions. 

Parents should encourage teens to avoid oversharing details that could make it easier for scammers to target them. Also, educate teens about the signs to watch for when talking to someone new online:

  1. Use a reverse image search to see if the user’s profile photo is used elsewhere.
  2. Ask plenty of questions and proceed slowly. 
  3. Be wary if the user seems too good to be true.
  4. Be skeptical if the other user attempts to move the conversation to another platform.
  5. Be skeptical if the user solicits explicit photos.
  6. Be skeptical of individuals that make excuses to avoid meeting in real life.
  7. Be concerned if the user asks for money for any reason.

If your teen seems overly attached to someone they met online, review the above information with your teen and help them investigate the individual’s authenticity.

Why do people catfish?

The motivations behind catfishing are diverse. However, catfishing scams have one thing in common: they tug at the heartstrings. This is by design. Manipulating a victim at a deeply emotional level is key to hooking the victim and ensuring the catfish gets what they want.

Financial Gain

Professional catfish will use two primary strategies to extract funds from a victim.

Fake Financial Need

Catfishers fake financial need by convincing victims they have an emergency or illness. They may claim to be traveling to meet but experience a breakdown or other travel emergency that prevents them from arriving and creates an excuse to ask for money. Catfish use multiple ruses in the context of relationships to repeatedly extract funds from the same victim.

Extortion

A catfish may convince the victim to reveal secrets or send explicit photos followed by a demand for funds. If the victim refuses, the catfish threatens to send the material to others and humiliate the victim. When sexually explicit materials are involved, this practice is known as sextortion.

A romance scam can escalate quickly into outright sextortion. In the tragic case of 15-year-old Braden Markus of Ohio, a catfish posing as a girl contacted him on Instagram on October 17, 2021, and relentlessly pressured him into engaging in conversation.

The perpetrator persuaded him to send a nude photo and threatened to disseminate it to pornographic websites and everyone he knew unless he sent $1,800. Unable to find a way out, Braden committed suicide. Braden was previously a happy, popular football player. The exchange that culminated in his suicide had lasted 27 minutes.

Cyberbullying

Catfishing may be employed as a type of cyberbullying. A cyberbully may attempt to gain a teen’s trust and persuade the teen to reveal sensitive information that can be used as a means of humiliation later. The motive may be revenge or a cruel attempt to fit in with others by toying with your teen. As with the signs of cyberbullying, warning signs of catfishing may be subtle.

Attachment Anxiety

Despite its negative effects, the motivations behind catfishing are not always nefarious. In some cases, the perpetrator has psychological deficiencies that are addressed by pretending to be someone else. 

According to Psychology Today, people who catfish have higher attachment anxiety and may fear rejection or distrust their own self-worth. For some perpetrators, catfishing may simply be a game. Men are more likely to catfish than women, and women are more likely to be victims.

Sexual Predation

Catfishing is a common method for sexual predators to engage with teens and persuade them to meet up with them.

What are the effects of catfishing?

The psychological effects of discovering that a meaningful relationship was fake is difficult, even for adults. Adolescents are in a vulnerable stage of brain development and largely dependent on peers for validation. For them, the effects of catfishing can be devastating, according to Psych Central, and may include:

  • Self-doubt
  • Lowered self-esteem
  • Humiliation
  • Monetary loss

The discovery of having been catfished brings about a realization to a victim that they were emotionally invested in a relationship, possibly even in love, when the other party was not. This can cause significant disillusionment regardless of the perpetrator’s motivation.

Examples of Catfishing

Catfishing can happen to nearly anyone at any age, underscoring the point that teens who fall for this scam do not deserve judgment or ridicule. It is not a sign of low intelligence or gullibility. According to Social Catfish, 75 percent of catfishing victims are college educated.

Manti Te’o

Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te’o, who later played for the NFL, was catfished in 2012 by a woman trying to come to terms with her identity. The woman used someone else’s Facebook profile picture and communicated with Manti through texts, messaging, and even phone calls, according to The Washington Post

The supposed relationship ended when she staged her death from leukemia. Shortly afterward, the world discovered the ruse. Manti endured public ridicule and shaming when the story was made public. It has since become the topic of the documentary “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist.”

Affluent Men

Business Insider reported that Sakoya Blackwood was charged with targeting multiple affluent men in an elaborate catfishing ruse beginning at least as early as March 2022. She used multiple aliases and addresses. She is accused of using a combination of blackmail and extortion against the men.

15-Year-Old Girl

Austin Lee Edwards, a 28-year-old law enforcement officer from Virginia, targeted and catfished a 15-year-old girl in Riverside, California. On November 25, 2022, he drove across the country to the teen’s home, abducted her, and murdered three of her family members, including her parents and a sister, before taking his own life.

Is catfishing someone illegal?

There are no specific laws against posing as someone else online, but many activities associated with catfishing are illegal:

  • Extortion
  • Blackmail
  • Possession of explicit materials depicting minors (child pornography)
  • Soliciting a minor

There are also civil ramifications associated with catfishing. You may have grounds for a civil lawsuit if your teen has provided funds to a catfish based on false pretenses or if your teen has suffered physical, sexual, or emotional harm as a result of catfishing.

On what social media platforms does catfishing usually happen?

Catfishing happens on every social media platform, and in many cases, multiple platforms are used. Catfish may initiate interactions on mainstream social media platforms such as Instagram but move the communication to more secure platforms such as Telegram or Signal.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, when surveying catfish victims, Facebook and Instagram were the most common platforms mentioned, with 23 percent naming Facebook and 13 percent naming Instagram.

Are social media platforms responsible for catfishing?

By allowing teens to use their platforms, social media companies have taken on a solemn responsibility to provide a safe environment that discourages cyberbullies and sexual predators from interacting with teens. However, they make little or no effort to verify the identity of their users or protect teens.

Social media platforms have the technology to provide a safer environment, but they have refused to do so in the interest of maximizing profits.

What should I do if my child has been harmed because of catfishing on social media?

Catfishing is an insidious form of cyberbullying that can result in severe emotional harm. Your child may need mental health therapy and support while recovering from catfishing. Your family may also need to alert law enforcement to report specific crimes and request protection against potential physical threats stemming from the interactions.

A social media lawyer can help you hold social media platforms accountable for failing to take reasonable measures to protect teens from harmful interactions such as catfishing. 

If you believe your child has been harmed by the effects of catfishing or any other type of cyberbullying, contact the Social Media Victims Law Center today for a free and confidential consultation.

Frequently Asked Questions

For individuals and children who have been

We only handle cases on a contingent fee basis. This means that we are paid a portion of any recovery obtained in the case and you do not owe us any attorneys’ fees if the lawsuit does not result in a recovery.

Every case is unique. Our attorneys will work with your family to evaluate your potential case and help you evaluate whether filing a lawsuit or other legal proceeding is in your family’s best interest. Generally speaking, the types of cases we handle involve serious mental health effects, including attempted or completed suicide, eating disorders, inpatient mental health treatment, or sexual trafficking/exploitation that was caused by or contributed to through addictive or problematic social media use by teens and young adults.

We are a law firm based near Seattle, WA comprised of lawyers who have spent their entire careers representing victims who have been harmed by dangerous products. We are also parents. Shocked and troubled by the recent revelations about the harm caused to teens and young adults by social media platforms, which powerful technology companies have designed to be highly addictive, Social Media Victims Law Center was launched specifically to help families and children who have suffered serious mental harm or exploitation through social media use to obtain justice.

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