What Is Catfishing?

Catfishing refers to a type of online fraud in which the cybercriminal creates a false online identity. Oftentimes, the purpose of catfishing is to steal the victim’s identity. It is a type of social engineering scheme, in which one or more perpetrators use deceptive tactics to retrieve personally identifiable information (PII) from unsuspecting victims.

Key Takeaways

  • Catfishing refers to a type of online fraud in which the cybercriminal creates a false online identity for the purpose of stealing or exploiting the victim’s identity.
  • This personal information can be used by fraudsters to engage in financial crime, such as making illegal credit card purchases or taking out loans in the victim’s name.
  • An online fraudster may build a relationship with their victim over time in an online setting while pretending to be someone else; this can be done either by using another person’s photograph and personal information, or by simply fabricating a fake persona.

How Catfishing Works

Catfishing entered the popular lexicon following the premiere of the 2010 documentary and the subsequent television show on the MTV network that has aired since 2012. However, this type of online fraud existed before the television show Catfish premiered.

Generally speaking, catfishing takes place when an online fraudster builds a relationship with their victim over time in an online setting while pretending to be someone else. This can be done either by using another person’s photograph and personal information, or by simply fabricating a fake persona. In some cases, the fraudster might be motivated by a desire to simply experiment with the deception, as a kind of entertaining mischief. In other cases, their motives might be financial, with the aim of stealing the victim’s information and then either selling that information on the black market or using it to make purchases themselves.

As more people seek human connections online, the risk of catfishing has grown. Fraudsters can easily find photos and personal information from various sources, such as social networks and stock image libraries. They can even generate photorealistic images of nonexistent people using modern artificial intelligence (AI) programs. The assets can then be used to engage in conversations online that lead to relationships that may seem trusting and authentic from the perspective of the victims. Sadly, this trust can then be exploited by the fraudsters in order to extract valuable information.

Example of Catfishing

The concept of catfishing was brought to national attention in 2013, when Manti Te'o—a star football player for Notre Dame—was found to have been the victim of an elaborate catfishing hoax. After an investigation by private investigators on behalf of Notre Dame, it was discovered that Manti’s girlfriend, with whom he had been having an online relationship, was in fact a character being played by a male fraudster. The incident was particularly distressing due to the fact that, as part of the fraud, Manti had been led to believe that his “girlfriend” had tragically died of leukemia.

This incident helps shed light on how victims of catfishing are often severely affected by these incidents, with consequences ranging from mild embarrassment to heartbreak and public shame. Surprisingly, there is no specific law against catfishing; however, it is possible for the victim to bring the catfish to justice by proving fraud, severe emotional distress, defamation of character, or harassment. Also, if the catfish used someone else's photographs, that person has the right to claim misappropriation of likeness.