Caught in a Catfish’s Net. When Online Relationships Turn Sour

What is catfishing?

Catfishing refers to the creation of a fictitious online persona or fake identity, typically on social media platforms, with malicious intent (Source: Catfishers use photos and information from other people to build an elaborate fake persona and then use that persona to deceitfully interact with others online.

Common catfishing tactics include using someone else’s photos as their profile pictures, fabricating personal details about their life, age, location, job, etc., and carrying on sustained online relationships without revealing their true identity. Catfishers put a tremendous amount of time and effort into their fake personas in order to make them seem believable.

There are various motivations behind catfishing. Some catfishers do it for revenge, seeking to get back at an ex or bully by manipulating their emotions. Others catfish for romance, creating an idealized persona to attract partners. Some are motivated by boredom, loneliness or seeking attention. Financial scams are another common motivation, with catfishers building relationships to eventually ask for money. Understanding the motivations can help determine appropriate responses.

person using someone else's photo for a fake dating profile

Is catfishing illegal?

There are no specific laws against catfishing itself in most states. However, some types of catfishing behavior can cross the line into criminal activity depending on the circumstances.

For example, catfishing someone in order to steal their money or personal information could be considered fraud or identity theft, which are crimes. According to source 1, many states have laws against using someone else’s identity to obtain anything of value without consent.

In addition, catfishing a minor with sexual intent can be considered luring or enticing a child, which is illegal. Threatening or harassing someone through fake online identities may also constitute criminal stalking or harassment in some cases.

While less overtly malicious catfishing is typically not a crime in itself, some states like California, New York, and Texas have proposed bills to criminalize fraudulent online impersonation in some contexts. However, so far there are no broad laws expressly prohibiting all forms of catfishing.

In summary, whether catfishing crosses into illegal territory depends a lot on the specific behavior and intent involved as well as applicable state laws.

Harms of catfishing

Catfishing can have severe psychological and emotional consequences for victims. Being deceived by someone you trusted can lead to feelings of betrayal, anger, sadness, confusion, embarrassment and low self-esteem according to Catfishing – Cybersmile. Victims may experience anxiety, depression or trauma symptoms like difficulty sleeping. Emotional trauma from catfishing can last a long time, especially if the catfisher was manipulative.

person looking distressed and anxious after being deceived by a catfish

In addition to emotional harm, catfishing scams can cause victims to waste time and money on a fake relationship. Catfishers often ask for money or gifts from their victims. Even without financial fraud, victims devote time, emotional energy and other resources to nurture friendships or relationships that turn out to be fabricated according to What is Catfishing and Why It’s Dangerous – ConnectSafely.

Being catfished can also damage someone’s reputation, especially if intimate photos or details about their life are shared without consent. Having a relationship exposed as fake can be embarrassing. In some cases, the catfisher posts damaging information about the victim online, such as allegations of inappropriate behavior.

When to report catfishing

If you are the victim of a catfishing scam, it’s important to report it, especially if the perpetrator’s actions have become threatening, dangerous, or involve financial crimes.

According to, you should contact law enforcement immediately if you’ve sent the catfish money or personal information. The police can file a report and potentially help you recover lost funds.

If you know the real identity of the catfish, recommends calling the police first so they can file a report. In some cases, police intervention has enabled victims to get some of their money back.

It’s especially important to get law enforcement involved if the catfish has committed financial crimes like stealing your money or identity. The police and your bank may be able to reverse fraudulent transactions and prevent further abuse of your finances.

How to report catfishing

If you believe you are being catfished, there are a few ways to officially report the activity and seek help:

Contact the dating site or social media platform where the catfishing is occurring. Most major sites like Facebook, Instagram and Tinder have reporting procedures in place for fake accounts. Provide any evidence you have, like screenshots of messages or profile details, to strengthen your claim.

person reporting fake online profile to dating app

File a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at Even if you have not suffered financial loss, documenting fraudulent online activity can help authorities identify criminals and assist other victims.

Contact your local law enforcement agency, such as your city police department. If you are in immediate danger or have suffered financial losses from a romance scam, police can file a report, pursue an investigation or even press charges against the catfisher in some cases (

Involving authorities can halt the catfisher’s activity, prevent them from victimizing others, and potentially lead to legal consequences. Law enforcement has more tools to identify fake accounts and bring offenders to justice.

What happens after reporting catfishing?

After reporting a catfish to the platform where the fake account exists, the platform will typically investigate and remove the account if it violates their terms of service, according to[1] However, the perpetrator may create a new account and continue catfishing with a different fake identity.

If you report catfishing to law enforcement, they will investigate to determine if any laws were broken, such as fraud, identity theft, or child exploitation. Depending on the severity and details of the case, the perpetrator may face criminal charges for their actions if they committed crimes, according to[2] For example, if the catfish victim was conned out of money or personal information was stolen.

In many cases, authorities have limited ability to find and charge catfish perpetrators, especially if they reside in a different jurisdiction. However, reporting provides important documentation in case the catfishing escalates or continues against other victims.

Seeking emotional support

Being catfished can take a serious emotional toll. It’s important to seek support from friends, family, and professionals to help process feelings of hurt, anger, embarrassment, and betrayal after discovering you’ve been catfished. According to, catfishing can cause anxiety, depression, and financial loss. Reaching out to loved ones provides connection during a vulnerable time. Confiding in someone you trust helps release bottled up emotions.

Additionally, consider seeing a therapist or counselor trained in healing from emotional trauma and fraud victimization. According to, a counselor can help process feelings of shame and humiliation that often accompany being catfished. A professional can provide coping strategies to regain self-confidence and ability to trust others again.

Connect with others who have gone through similar ordeals by joining a support group, online or in person. According to, finding community helps release resentment and anger. You’ll gain perspective and learn how others overcame catfishing scams. Although healing takes time, reaching out for emotional help from multiple sources puts you on the path forward.

Avoiding catfishing scams

One of the best ways to avoid falling victim to a catfishing scam is to be vigilant and look for inconsistencies or warning signs. Some steps you can take include:

Reverse image search profile photos – Take any photos your online contact has shared and run them through a reverse image search like Google Images. If the photos appear elsewhere online attached to other names, it’s a red flag.

Look for inconsistent details – Note any details your online contact shares about their life and see if they remain consistent over time. For example, do they give a different job title or location each time they share? Inconsistency can be a sign of lying.

Don’t send money to online-only contacts – Be very wary if an online contact you’ve never met in person asks you to send money for any reason, like an emergency or travel costs. Never send money, gifts, or financial account info to someone you only know online, as it’s often a scam tactic (source).

Ask specific questions – Catfish may stumble when asked for specifics about their life, hometown, interests etc. Ask thoughtful questions and see if their answers seem genuine.

Go slow – Take your time getting to know an online contact before sharing personal info or making plans to meet. Catfish try to build intimacy quickly to manipulate targets.

Protecting your identity

When using the internet, it’s important to take steps to protect your identity and avoid falling victim to catfishing scams. Some tips include:

Keep personal details private. Be cautious about how much personal information you share online, especially on social media. Never share details like your home address, phone number, social security number, or financial information (Source 1).

Use secure passwords. Have unique, hard-to-guess passwords for all your online accounts. Consider using a password manager to help create and remember strong passwords (Source 2).

Be wary of unsolicited messages. Use caution with direct messages from strangers online. Don’t respond to inappropriate requests or share personal details with someone you don’t know (Source 3).

Educating Others

One way to help combat catfishing is by educating others about it. This includes sharing red flags to look out for, advocating for catfishing victims, and promoting media literacy.

When talking to friends or family members, especially teens and young adults, bring up how common catfishing is. Let them know that one in seven teens has encountered catfishing. Discuss red flags like someone avoiding video chats, making excuses not to meet in person, using photos that seem inconsistent, or refusing connections with others online.

parent educating teen about how to spot catfishing red flags

Speak up on behalf of catfishing victims. Explain how catfishing can lead to emotional distress and financial fraud. Advocate for more protections and awareness. Recommend counseling and support groups for those recovering from the psychological impacts.

Promoting media literacy is key. Teach critical thinking about online identities – that photos can be stolen, info fabricated. Suggest looking up profiles on reverse image searches and being wary when something seems too perfect. Emphasize the importance of verifying identities, like through live video chats. Together we can educate against catfishing risks.

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