Reporting Catfishing to the FBI. Here’s What You Need to Know

What is a Catfish?

Catfishing refers to an online identity hoax where someone pretends to be someone else by creating false profiles on social media sites, online dating services, and other web platforms. The term catfish was first coined in the 2010 documentary Catfish, referring to people who create elaborate fake online identities or personas and try to seduce or manipulate others who interact with their phony profiles.

Common tactics used by catfish include:

  • Stealing photos, videos, or information from third parties to create their fictitious profiles
  • Making up life stories, experiences, jobs, achievements, and personality traits for their fake identities
  • Cultivating emotional connections through texts, chats, calls with their targets to gain trust and intimacy
  • Avoiding video chats or in-person meetings by making excuses

Catfish typically engage in these deceptions for purposes like:

  • Seeking attention, affection, or relationship from their victims
  • Finding emotional validation or boosting their self-esteem
  • Living an alternate fantasy life different from their real world
  • Defrauding people out of money
  • Cyberbullying or exacting revenge on specific individuals

When to Report Catfishing to the FBI

There are several situations when catfishing moves beyond unethical behavior into criminal activity that should be reported to the FBI:

When catfishing involves fraud or theft – Many catfish attempt to defraud their victims out of money through fake business opportunities, requests for financial assistance, or straight-up theft of bank account information. According to the FBI, romance scam victims reported losing over $1 billion in 2022 alone (source).

someone using a computer to report catfishing online

When the catfish poses a threat to safety – While rare, some catfish escalate to making physical threats or attempting to stalk the victim in real life. Any threats or signs of planning to cause harm should be reported.

When the catfish targets minors – Catfishing involving sexual exploitation of a minor is a serious crime that should be immediately reported to the FBI Cyber Crimes Division.

In general, if any catfishing activity involves breaking the law, defrauding victims, threats to safety, or targeting minors, it is appropriate to file a complaint with the FBI.

How the FBI Investigates Catfishing

The FBI relies on a variety of investigative techniques and collaborations to track down catfish and cyber predators. According to a DOJ press release, the FBI works closely with local and federal law enforcement partners in catfishing investigations to identify suspects and build cases against them.

The FBI has significant legal authority under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act to compel internet service providers, social media companies, and other technology firms to provide customer records and account data relevant to an ongoing investigation. The FBI can issue National Security Letters without court approval to obtain basic subscriber information. For content data, the FBI must secure a search warrant from a judge based on probable cause.

FBI agents can analyze preserved social media data and IP addresses to uncover connections between accounts and identify catfish suspects. They use police reports, victim interviews, public records, and surveillance to corroborate information found online. Forensic analysis of cell phones and computers may provide further evidence. By piecing together online footprints, the FBI can ultimately track down the real person behind a fake account.

Filing a Complaint with the FBI

If you believe you are the victim of catfishing and want to file a complaint with the FBI, you can contact your local FBI field office. The FBI has 56 field offices located in major cities across the United States. To find the office nearest you, visit the FBI’s website.

When filing your complaint, either in person or over the phone, you will need to provide the following information:

  • Your full name, address, phone number, and email
  • Details about how you were catfished, including dates and names used
  • Any information you have about the suspected catfish’s real identity
  • Copies of communication between you and the catfish, like text messages or emails
  • Screenshots of the catfish’s online profiles or posts
  • Records of any money or gifts you sent to the catfish

Provide as many details as possible in your report. The more evidence you can provide, the better the FBI will be able to investigate your complaint and identify the catfish.

a list of evidence to provide when filing an fbi complaint about catfishing

What Happens After Filing a Complaint

After filing a complaint about catfishing with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), here’s some information on what to expect in the investigation process and victim support services:

The FBI review process typically takes some time. According to the IC3 website, complaints are reviewed and researched by FBI agents, so the process can be lengthy [1]. Cases involving threats, significant financial losses, physical harm, or crimes against children may be prioritized. For other complaints, it could take weeks or months before victims hear any updates.

If the complaint provides enough evidence of a federal crime, the FBI may open an investigation and work to identify the perpetrator. However, they may not disclose details of ongoing investigations to victims. If the complaint does not show reasonable indication of a federal offense, the FBI may refer it to appropriate law enforcement or pass the information to cyber task forces [2].

If an investigation leads to the arrest and charging of the perpetrator, the FBI will typically notify any victims. Victims may be called to testify if the case goes to trial. However, the FBI does not have the authority to initiate civil charges or provide direct restitution to victims.

The IC3 website has resources to assist victims, including referral contacts for reporting internet scams or identity theft. Victims of severe catfishing can also seek professional counseling to cope with emotional trauma and grief from damaged relationships.

Avoiding Catfishing Scams

There are several red flags to watch out for to avoid becoming the victim of a catfishing scam:

Refusing to video chat or meet in person is a major red flag. Catfishers will often make excuses for why they can’t video chat or meet up. They may claim their camera is broken or that they frequently travel for work. According to PCMag, if someone refuses to video chat, it’s wise to break off communication.

Inconsistencies in their personal details or timeline of events may indicate someone is lying about who they are. For example, if they post photos tagged in a city they claimed to have never visited. Lookout for changes in their career, marital status, or number of children over time. According to Malwarebytes, scammers struggle keeping facts straight.

Professing love extremely quickly can also be a catfishing tactic. True emotional connections take time to develop. If they declare their love immediately, they may be trying to manipulate your emotions.

You can also use reverse image search tools like Pimeyes, TinEye or Google Images to check if their photos appear elsewhere online. Searching their phone number on sites like Spy Dialer can also reveal if it’s tied to any other names.

Never send money, personal details like banking information, or compromising photos to someone you haven’t met in person. This leaves you vulnerable to financial fraud or extortion.

Resources for Catfishing Victims

Being a victim of catfishing can be a traumatic experience both emotionally and financially. Fortunately there are resources available to help victims recover and move forward.

Counseling services like The Cyber Helpline and CyberSmile can provide emotional support and help victims process their experience. Talking to a professional can help deal with feelings of betrayal, anger, and low self-esteem.

a counselor providing support to a catfishing victim

The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center helps victims file complaints and provides guidance for recovering lost money. Victims of fraud should also contact their bank and file a dispute. In some cases, it may be possible to recover stolen funds.

Victims who have suffered monetary damages can consult a lawyer about pursuing civil litigation against the catfisher. While it can be difficult to track down the real identity of a catfish, legal action may be an option in some circumstances.

Support groups through organizations like Romance Scams also provide a community for victims to connect and heal. Speaking with others who have been through similar ordeals can help in the recovery process.

Warning Signs of Catfishing

There are several red flags that may indicate you are being catfished by someone online. Being aware of these warning signs can help you identify and avoid a potential catfish.

Inconsistencies in Profile Details

Catfish often struggle to keep their story straight. Look for inconsistencies in the details they share about themselves in their profile, conversations, and photos. For example, they may list different birthdays or hometowns across platforms. Drastic differences in interests, values, or personality may also be a red flag.

Refusal to Video Chat

Many catfish refuse or make excuses to avoid video chatting. They may claim their camera is broken or that they have an illness or condition preventing them from showing their face. Healthy relationships require openness, honesty, and trust. An unwillingness to video verify their identity is a big warning sign.

Requests for Money

Catfish often ask for money for various sob stories or excuses. These include medical bills, transportation costs to meet you, or claimed financial troubles. Never send money to someone you only know online. Fraudulent requests for financial help are a telltale catfish tactic.

Safely Confronting a Suspected Catfish

If you suspect someone of catfishing you, it’s important to confront them safely and cut off contact. According to WikiHow, the first step is to communicate through social media or text to confirm your suspicions before agreeing to any in-person meeting. Ask pointed questions about details they’ve shared that don’t add up, and see if they can video chat to verify their identity.

If you do decide to meet a suspected catfish in person, never go alone. The Cyber Helpline advises bringing along a friend you trust for safety and support. Meet in a public place so you can leave quickly if needed. Avoid giving any additional personal information.

friends meeting a suspected catfish together in a public place for safety

Once you’ve confirmed someone is catfishing you, cease all contact immediately. Block their profiles on social media and their phone number. You may want to also notify their other online contacts that they are a catfish. This can help prevent them from victimizing someone else.

Coping with the Emotional Impact

Being catfished can take a serious emotional toll on victims. Discovering the deception and manipulation can lead to feelings of anger, humiliation, sadness, and distrust. According to The Private Therapy Clinic, common reactions include shock, embarrassment, rage, and a sense of violation. It’s important to give yourself time and space to process these complex emotions.

Seeking professional counseling or support groups can help. Talking through your experience with a therapist or others who’ve gone through similar situations can assist with making sense of what happened and recovering. The Privacy Therapy Clinic recommends cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as an option to help change thought patterns and beliefs that arose from the catfishing.

There are also things you can do on your own. Self-care practices like meditation, journaling, and exercise can help relieve stress. Take time away from dating sites or apps until you feel more confident. Learn to spot red flags that might indicate deception so you don’t fall victim again. But also don’t blame yourself – catfishers can be highly manipulative.

While painful, treat the catfishing as a learning experience. Reflect on ways to have better boundaries and standards for relationships moving forward. With time, counseling, and self-care, you can heal and regain trust in others. Support groups can provide community with others recovering from catfishing.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top