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Catfishing is a type of deceptive activity where a person creates a sockpuppet social networking presence, or fake identity on a social network account, usually targeting a specific victim for abuse, deception or fraud.

Catfishing is often employed for romance scams on dating websites. Catfishing may be used for financial gain, to compromise a victim in some way, or simply as a form of trolling or wish fulfillment.

Catfishing media has been produced, often centering around victims who wish to identify their catfisher. Celebrities have been targeted, which has also brought media attention to catfishing practices.


Although some sources state that the modern term originated from the 2010 American documentary Catfish, the term has actually been around in the English language for decades.[1]

Catfishing has become more widely known throughout the subsequent decade. It started from the documentary, and it eventually became a popular television series. This series follows the main star of the movie, Yaniv (Nev) Schulman. He helps other people investigate their possible catfish situation. This gives a lot of insight into the real lives that have been affected by catfishing. It also explores the motives behind the people who use fake identities to build relationships with online users.[2]

According to Vince Pierce, the husband of Angela Pierce—the subject of the Catfish documentary—the term catfish comes from fishermen "putting sea catfish in with the cod to nip at their tails and keep them active" during overseas transport in order to produce more lively and fresh meat.[3] This etymology has been described as having "all the hallmarks of apocryphal folklore" by Ben Zimmer writing for The Boston Globe, pointing out that catfish were used "as a kind of Christian parable (referring to the Atlantic rather than [as in Pierce's explanation] the Pacific fishing trade) in Henry W. Nevinson's 1913 Essays in Rebellion and again in Charles Marriott's novel The Catfish published later the same year."[4]

The term rose in popularity during an incident involving University of Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o in 2013.[1][4]

According to a Washington Post article[5] the Rolling Stone University of Virginia rape hoax story may have been an example of catfishing.[6]


Some online users have used catfishing to explore their gender and/or sexual identities.[7] For example, on the MTV show Catfish, based on the documentary, a girl named Sonny connects with a male model named Jamison who is, in reality, Chelsea, a woman using her alternative identity to interact with other women in an online space.[7]

Financial gain can be another motive of catfishing. In 2015, three girls created a fake social media profile and managed to steal $3,300 from the Islamic State, a terrorist group. They had been approached by a recruitment officer and asked for money to go to Syria. After being given the money, they immediately deleted their account and pocketed the cash for their own personal travel.[8]

Catfishing can also be a tactic to stop criminals. In 2004, Dateline NBC produced the segment, To Catch a Predator, which documented undercover cops posing as minors online to catch pedophiles.

Catfishing is used for multiple reasons. The person with the fake identity can catfish another user on the Internet to believe they are the person they portray themselves as. This often is used for relationships, such as the scenario in the movie Catfish. The person catfishing usually uses another real person's photos and life facts to make them appear as a real person. Often, the real person who is being used for the fake identity does not even know that they are having their pictures and name used. They are not aware that their identity was used to create these fake relationships online. The person uses catfishing in order to appear as a better version of themselves by using a fake identity. Their primary reason to appear as a fake person is to befriend the other person for a relationship or other sexual reasons.[9] It can also be used as a way to cyberbully someone online. By using a fake identity, it is easy for the person to get away with bullying on the internet. Since they are using another person's identity or a made up identity, the person will not get in trouble and will not have any consequences. The cyberbullying cannot be traced back to them, which is a big reason why they use a fake identity in the first place. This type of cyberbullying has increased the number of suicides in teens over the past few years.[10]


There are many dangers of catfishing. It can be used to attract a person from the Internet and allow them to meet them in person. The person catfishing can lure people to a place to kidnap, or hurt in any other way. It is a new way for sexual predators to interact with their victims and possibly harm. These sexual predators use their fake identity to talk to teens, allowing them to get close to them so that the victim will trust them. It is then easy for the predator to get information from the victim so that they can use that information to harm them.[11] Another gambit used in espionage is to lure a male victim into a sexual encounter and then threaten to report sexual misconduct if proprietary or classified information is not provided. Such a threat can be carried out years after the sexual encounter, and the victim knows that even if a criminal case can not be proven, the reputational damage to the victim will be significant. One additional danger of catfishing is being swindled of your money through the false veil of love and affection – sometimes to the tunes of millions of dollars.[12]


There are several ways people can spot a catfisher, all of which are imperfect. If a random person starts following or messaging a user, and the person's profile picture looks fake or too good to be true, then the person may be catfishing. If the person messaging does not want to video chat, or keeps finding excuses to not meet up, they might be a catfisher as well.[13] Tineye Image Search and Google Image Search can be used to help verify images.


The identity of an Australian actor, Lincoln Lewis, was used by an impersonator over four years. The actions resulted in the suicide of one victim, who had at one point reached out to the real Lincoln Lewis as they had attended primary school together, so she was familiar with some aspects of his life that were discovered and exploited by the perpetrator. The female perpetrator operated from at least mid-2011 until arrested in mid-2016, and in early 2019 was found guilty of stalking six people.[14][15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Harris, Aisha (January 18, 2013). "Catfish meaning and definition: term for online hoaxes has a surprisingly long history". Slate. Retrieved 2015-09-23.
  2. ^ Martin, Denise. "Here's How MTV's Catfish Actually Works". Vulture. Retrieved 6 April 2018.
  3. ^ "Why is MTV's 'Catfish' TV show called Catfish?". November 26, 2012. Retrieved 2015-09-23.
  4. ^ a b Zimmer, Ben (January 27, 2013). "Catfish: How Manti Te'o's imaginary romance got its name". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2015-09-23.
  5. ^ Shapiro, T. Rees (December 10, 2014). "U-Va. students challenge Rolling Stone account of alleged sexual assault". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-09-23.
  6. ^ Shapiro, Jeffrey Scott (December 15, 2014). "U.Va. rape accuser's friends begin to doubt story". The Washington Times. Retrieved 2015-09-23.
  7. ^ a b Slade, Alison F.; Narro, Amber J. & Buchanan, Burton P. (2014). Reality Television: Oddities of Culture. Lexington Books. pp. 237–244. ISBN 978-0-7391-8564-3.
  8. ^ "Chechen girls swindle ISIS fighters for travel money". RT News. 29 July 2015.
  9. ^ Lohmann, Raychelle. "The Two-Sided Face of Teen Catfishing". Psychology Today. Retrieved 6 April 2018.
  10. ^ Patchin, Justin W. (2013-02-07). "Catfishing as a Form of Cyberbullying". Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved 29 March 2018.
  11. ^ Lohmann, Raychelle. "The Two-Sided Face of Teen Catfishing". Psychology Today. Retrieved 29 March 2018.
  12. ^
  13. ^ McHugh, Molly (2013-08-23). "It's catfishing season! How to tell lovers from liars online, and more". Digital Trends. Retrieved 6 April 2018.
  14. ^ Lincoln Lewis warns of social media dangers after online impersonator convicted of stalking, ABC News Online, 2019-04-09
  15. ^ Catching a catfish: A terrifying story of virtual deceit and inexplicable malice, perpetrated by the last person anyone expected., James Oaten, ABC News Online]], 2019-04-09