Catfishing is a modern term for an age-old practice that’s unacceptable in any era or circumstance.

Until relatively recently, were you to look up “catfish,” there would have been a single definition relating to the bottom-feeding aquatic creature. However, the word took on an entirely new meaning with Nev Schulman‘s 2010 documentary, Catfish, which detailed how he was drawn into an online relationship with someone he thought was a 19-year-old named Megan. In reality, she was a married 40-year-old named Angela, who went to great lengths to create a fake persona.

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As Catfish, the documentary, entered the conversation, catfish (and catfishing), the term, entered the lexicon. Thus, Merriam-Webster added new definitions: a noun, meaning, “A person who sets up a false personal profile on a social networking site for fraudulent or deceptive purposes”; and a transitive verb, meaning “To deceive (someone) by creating a false personal profile online.” That explains what catfishing is, but not why people do it.

But here’s the thing: People were catfishing for long before the rise of social media, and before there was a term for the act. Social media simply made the practice easier for the perpetrator. And it has often made it a much more publicly painful, and shameful, for the victim. In the past, one could be led on through letters and phone calls, but today a perpetrator can create an entire false persona.

As we’ll see, catfishing victims can feel very real emotions for this fake persona. Therefore, the fallout from a catfishing scheme can be genuine suffering. And there’s really never any good that comes of it, save for a cautionary tale for others.

Why Do People Catfish?

Photo by Prateek Katyal from Pexels
Photo by Prateek Katyal from Pexels

There are myriad reasons why someone may engage in catfishing, and none of them is good. However, they do vary in levels of severity. Let’s look at five of the most common reasons people catfish.

Boredom or Loneliness: It seems trite to say that someone catfishes because they’re bored. It’s sad, but not excusable, to think they do it because they are lonely, but these are indeed common reasons people assume fake online personas to engage with others. Simply put, it’s something to do, and something that allows for human contact, even if that’s under false pretenses.

The term “catfish” was actually coined in the 2010 documentary by Angela’s husband, Vince, who compared her actions to those of actual catfish shipped in vats with cod to keep the latter active. (It turns out that is a myth.) But by Vince’s reasoning, Angela’s catfishing activities keep the lives of those around her interesting.

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Sexual Excitement or Exploration: Quite often, people who catfish pretend to be someone of a different gender or sexual orientation. They may be use their false persona to explore a side of their sexuality or gender identity they find intriguing, confusing or arousing.

Fraud: One all-too-common reason people catfish is that they hope to get money, or other assets, from the person they’re deceiving. Whether by gaining direct access to their victim’s bank account or by receiving gifts, a catfisher frequently seeks material gain.

Revenge or Exploitation: Some people employ catfishing to exact revenge on someone they feel has wronged them. Others use the practice to cause their own harm, whether emotional or financial. The victim of catfishing may be embarrassed, ashamed, ridiculed or depressed, which can bring joy to the perpetrator.

Escape: Many perpetrators of catfishing do so as a form of mental and emotional escape. They enter a deluded mental state in which they believe the lies they tell, and the fictitious world they’ve created. This is not a healthy reason for their actions, of course. They still harm the other party, and do nothing address the circumstances from which they desire to escape.

How Talking About Being Catfished Helped Manti Te’o to Heal

Manti Te’o in Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist (Photo: Netflix)

In case you missed it, a two-part Netflix documentary centers on the catfishing scam that nearly ruined the life of NFL player Manti Te’o when he was a rising star at the University of Notre Dame.

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The documentary, Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist, does a wonderful job of telling Te’o’s story, so we won’t delve too into the details. Suffice it to say that he was the victim of an elaborate catfishing scheme in which the person Te’o considered his long-distance girlfriend went so far as to stage her death. Te’o devoted a football season to her memory, drawing national media attention. Her death became the defining experience in his life. it’s not his time spent playing professional football, it’s the time he devoted to a fake relationship and the emotional aftermath.

After participating in The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist, Te’o said he had forgiven the person who fooled him, and moved on with his life. If you should ever be catfished, hopefully you can do the same. Here are some tips to that end.

What to Do If You’re Catfished

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

So, it happened. The person you thought was the love of your life turned out to be catfishing you. What now?

The first thing to do is break off contact. Block the person on social media platforms, report them to moderators or administrators, delete their phone number and block their email address. In short, shut them out. You’ll also want to go through your social media accounts and scrub any mention of the person. Delete any photos they sent; it’s not really them anyway.

If the person has access to anything from your Netflix account to your bank account, change your passwords. Consider putting a fraud alert on your credit cards. If you fear a larger issue may loom, such as theft or threats of violence, consider filing a police report. Just make sure you have cause before so doing. A brief conversation with a lawyer may help you to decide.

Finally, take care of yourself. There can be a heavy emotional toll inflicted by catfishing. So, don’t hesitate to talk to a therapist, a religious leader, or to friends or family with whom you are comfortable. Find someone real who can support you through the anger and, yes, heartbreak, of a catfishing situation.


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