The Ubiquity of Catfishing. How Widespread Online Impersonation Really Is

What is Catfishing?

Catfishing refers to the practice of creating fake online identities or personas to deceive and manipulate others on the internet and social media. The term was popularized by the 2010 documentary Catfish and MTV’s reality TV series of the same name, which chronicled people’s online relationships and exposed cases of catfishing.

Catfishing involves using someone else’s photos and fabricated biographical information to pretend to be someone else online. Catfishers often target people on dating sites, social media, and messaging apps. They create elaborate fake profiles and life stories to form relationships built on lies. The motivations for catfishing vary but often include loneliness, insecurities, revenge, boredom, or a desire for attention, financial gain, or romance.

To carry out catfishing schemes, perpetrators use stolen or stock photos and make up details like age, location, occupation, education, interests, and more. They interact extensively with targets online but make excuses to avoid meeting in person or video chatting. Catfishers manage countless fake accounts and put great effort into avoiding detection of their hoaxes.

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, the definition of catfishing is: “The practice of using social media to create false identities in order to trick people into romantic relationships.”

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Prevalence of Catfishing

person using multiple devices to manage fake online profiles

Catfishing is a relatively common occurrence, especially on online dating platforms and social media. According to one survey, around 15% of online daters have been catfished before. Additionally, the FBI received over 24,000 complaints of catfishing in 2020 alone. The demographics of both catfishers and their victims vary greatly, though young adults seem to be especially vulnerable. According to Psychology Today, over 50% of people aged 18-29 reported being catfished at some point.

While catfishing can happen on any online platform, it is most prevalent on dating apps and social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. This is likely because these platforms encourage users to connect with strangers and share personal information and photos. A report from Social Catfish, an online investigation service, found that Tinder, OkCupid, Instagram, and Facebook are the platforms where catfishing is most common.

Overall, catfishing appears to be a significant problem in the digital age. With more and more people turning to online platforms to find relationships and connect with others, education around spotting fake profiles and protecting one’s identity online is becoming increasingly important.

Motivations for Catfishing

There are various psychological motivations that drive people to catfish others online. Some of the most common include:


Those who feel socially isolated or lonely may create a fake persona to find connection and companionship online. Catfishing provides a way to fulfill unmet needs for belonging. According to one study, over 50% of catfishers reported feeling lonely as a motivation for their behavior (


Some people catfish simply because they are bored and find entertainment in living a fantasy life online. Pretending to be someone else adds excitement and becomes a fun escape from mundanity.


In some cases, catfishing is motivated by seeking revenge against a specific person or group that the catfisher feels has done them wrong. The catfisher may try to manipulate or publicly embarrass their target as retribution.

Financial Gain

Catfishing schemes can also be used to defraud people out of money. A catfisher may fabricate stories and hardships to elicit donations or loans from sympathetic victims.


Those with deep insecurities or low self-esteem may create an imaginary identity that they feel is more desirable or impressive than their real self. Catfishing provides a way to fulfill ego needs and gain validation they feel is lacking in their own lives.

Psychological Impact

someone looking shocked and betrayed

Being catfished can have severe psychological effects on victims. These effects may include:

Trust issues after being catfished – Victims may develop trust issues and find it hard to trust people again after being manipulated and lied to. As one Redditor described, “After being catfished I had major trust issues and didn’t believe anything anyone told me online for a long time” (Source).

Anxiety and depression – The betrayal of catfishing can lead to heightened anxiety, paranoia, sadness, and depression. Victims may constantly wonder if they are being lied to again.

Low self-esteem – Being fooled can make victims feel stupid, naive, and damage their self-confidence. As noted by SuperMoney, “victims often feel ashamed and blame themselves” for falling for the deception (Source).

Notable Catfishing Cases

One of the most well-known catfishing incidents involved former Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o in 2013. Te’o was fooled into believing he was in a relationship with a woman named Lennay Kekua for several years. However, Kekua did not actually exist and was fabricated by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo as an elaborate catfishing hoax. The story received national media attention and highlighted the prevalence of catfishing scams.

Another high-profile example occurred in 2016 when New York Jets defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson was tricked into sending explicit photos to someone posing as a female model. The imposter threatened to leak the photos before ultimately exposing their catfishing ploy. This case demonstrated how even celebrities can fall victim to manipulative catfishing schemes.

How to Avoid Being Catfished

There are several steps you can take to avoid being catfished online:

Conduct a reverse image search on the person’s profile pictures using tools like TinEye or Google Images. This will show you if the photos are stolen from somewhere else online. If the pictures are fake, it’s likely the person behind them is too.

Look for inconsistent details in what they tell you about themselves. If their story keeps changing or doesn’t add up, that could be a red flag for catfishing.

Take the getting-to-know-you conversations slowly. Catfish often try to accelerate the relationship and get overly familiar too fast. Be wary if they start professing love before you really know each other.

Video chat with them before agreeing to meet in person. A catfish will typically refuse or make excuses to avoid a video call since they know they don’t look like their fake photos.

While being cautious, keep in mind many online daters are genuine. With smart precautions, you can feel confident finding real romance online.

What to Do If You’ve Been Catfished

If you discover that someone has been catfishing you online or on a dating app, there are steps you should take:

First, report the fake profile to the social network or dating app. Most platforms have a way to report suspicious or fake accounts for impersonation or creating a false identity. The platform may investigate and remove the profile if it violates their policies.

Second, don’t be afraid to reach out for support from friends, family or other trusted sources. Talking with someone about the experience can help you process what happened and avoid feeling isolated. Having a support system is important after learning you’ve been deceived.

Going forward, it’s wise to be more cautious about sharing personal information and photographs with online contacts before verifying their identity. Look for red flags and inconsistencies in what someone shares. Don’t rush into sharing details that could allow someone to steal your identity or locate you in real life.

Overall, being catfished can be extremely upsetting but there are ways to address it and avoid repeating the same mistake. Reporting fake profiles and remaining vigilant can help minimize your risk of being targeted by a catfish again.

Is Catfishing Illegal?

scales of justice representing catfishing law

Legally, catfishing itself is not strictly illegal in the United States. There are no specific laws that prohibit the act of impersonating someone else online or misrepresenting yourself to form relationships. However, certain criminal charges may apply depending on the specific circumstances of the catfishing.

For example, if the catfisher uses someone else’s identity to obtain money or other financial benefits, they could potentially be charged with identity theft or fraud [1]. Catfishing relationships that become sexually explicit could also fall under child sexual exploitation laws if one participant is underage.

In some states like California, catfishing someone into believing they are in a relationship in order to gain sexual content and then distributing it could be considered revenge porn, which is illegal [2]. Overall, most catfishing behaviors are unethical but not strictly illegal.

However, victims of catfishing can potentially sue the catfisher for intentional infliction of emotional distress or fraud in civil court. The catfisher’s actions would have to meet the legal criteria for these intentional torts in order for a lawsuit to be successful. But there are no criminal laws that explicitly prohibit catfishing adults in romantic relationships.

Ethical Considerations

There is an ongoing debate about whether catfishing is unethical. On one side, some argue that catfishing is harmless and can even have positive effects in certain situations. For example, some catfish create fake profiles not to manipulate others, but as an outlet for exploring new identities or overcoming social anxiety. In these cases, the deception is not meant to harm anyone.

However, most experts argue that catfishing is unethical in the majority of cases. As explained in the Media Engagement Project report, “To Catfish or Not to Catfish? The Ethics of Online Deception,” catfishing inherently involves lying and manipulating others for personal gain or entertainment [1]. This violates principles of honesty, integrity, and respect. Additionally, catfishing often has negative psychological impacts on victims, as outlined in the “Ethics of Catfishing Case Study” from Universal College [2]. Causing harm to others simply for personal interests is widely considered unethical.

In summary, while there may be some gray areas, the preponderance of evidence suggests catfishing tends to be unethical in most situations due to the deception involved and its potential for psychological harm. More openness, honesty, and authenticity in online relationships would likely lead to better outcomes for all involved.

The Future of Catfishing

As technology like artificial intelligence advances, it may become easier to combat catfishing online. Catfishing expert Nev Schulman predicts that AI will likely be used to analyze patterns in language and behavior to detect potential catfish accounts ( However, he believes human intuition will still play an important role in identifying catfishing.

a person looking at a smartphone representing technology and catfishing

The ongoing social impacts of catfishing remain complex. Victims can experience lasting emotional trauma and damaged relationships. At the same time, some argue catfishing may provide a creative outlet or safe space for exploration for certain individuals. Either way, education around responsible online behavior and digital literacy will be key to mitigating catfishing’s harmful effects.

In the future, improved technology along with greater awareness around online ethics may help reduce catfishing. But it’s unlikely catfishing will ever be fully eradicated given the anonymity and deception inherent to the internet.

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