Catfishing refers to the creation of a fictitious online persona, or fake identity (typically on social networking platforms), with the intent of deception,[1] usually to mislead a victim into an online romantic relationship or to commit financial fraud.[2] Perpetrators, usually referred to as catfish, generally use fake photos and lie about their personal lives to present themselves as more attractive for financial gain, personal satisfaction, evasion of legal consequences, or to troll.[citation needed] Public awareness surrounding catfishing has increased in recent years, partially attributed an increase in the occurrence of the practice combined with a number of high-profile instances.[3][4][5][6]

Two people obscuring their faces with festive masks during a Carnival celebration.
Similarly to a traditional Carnival celebration involving attendees masking their faces, the Internet allows catfishers to mask their true identities.

Etymology edit

The term was introduced with the release of the 2010 American documentary film Catfish, following executive producer Nev Schulman, himself a victim of catfishing. Schulman had developed an online friendship with a 40-year-old housewife mainly presenting herself as an 18-year-old girl from the Midwestern United States. In the documentary, the woman's husband compares her behavior to that of a catfish being shipped with live cod.[citation needed]

This urban legend originated from Essays in Rebellion (1913) by Henry Nevinson and The Catfish (1913) by Charles Marriott[7] and refers to the practice of placing a catfish in a tank full of cod for the purposes of shipping. The impostor, or catfish, is said to prevent the cod from becoming pale and lethargic, ensuring the delivery of a high-quality product.[8][9][10] Catfish: The TV Show, airing on MTV since 2012, follows Schulman as he helps others investigate possible catfish situations.[11]

The term spiked in popularity in 2013 after University of Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o was publicly catfished.[7][9] The 2013 court case Zimmerman v. Board of Trustees of Ball State University saw the first legal use of the term catfishing, with the judge using the Urban Dictionary definition.[12]

Catfish was added to the eleventh edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary in 2014.[13] An associate editor at Merriam-Webster noted that the word was "such a sensation from the moment that it came on the scene," attributing its popularity to both Schulman's documentary and the Manti Te'o story.[14]

Practice and sociology edit

Catfishing is often employed on dating websites, social media, and email[15] by perpetrators to disassociate from their real-life identities and shield themselves from moral obligations or responsibilities. Motivations for catfishing are typically malevolent and may include sexual, financial, or social gain.[16] The practice is often attributed to the online disinhibition effect.[17] Typically, the catfish uses someone else's photos and personal details to make themselves appear genuine, while the individual whose identity is being exploited is unaware that their information is being used.[18]

In certain cases, catfishing is used as a means for individuals to explore and express their gender and sexual identity, particularly in online environments conducive to anonymity. Commonly, perpetrators will portray themselves as the opposite gender on social media and dating apps to interact with unsuspecting individuals.[19]

Perpetrators of catfishing are often seeking financial gain. In 2015, three girls managed to steal $3,300 from the Islamic State after being approached by a recruitment officer to join the terrorist organization. After receiving money for supposed travel to Syria, the girls deleted their account and kept the money for personal travel.[20]

Catfishing has also been used as a tactic to stop criminal activity. In 2004, Dateline NBC produced the segment To Catch a Predator, documenting undercover officers using fake online profiles to lure potential sexual predators into spaces where meetings with supposed minors had been arranged.[citation needed]

Catfishing can also be used as a tactic to cyberbully or attack individuals online while working under a false identity, making the harassment difficult to trace.[21]

Signs edit

While catfishing can take many forms, some common behaviors and characteristics have been defined:

  • Refuses or repeatedly postpones meeting in person, often at the last minute with increasingly elaborate, contradictory, or impossible excuses (e.g. attending a concert that doesnt exist, or are quarantined with a non contiguous disease).
  • Follow requests and/or messages from unknown persons, sometimes impersonating a celebrity, often marked by low follower count and lack of account verification.[citation needed]
  • Inconsistencies with names, pictures, or information appearing on profiles that ostensibly belong to the same individual.[15]
  • Photo backgrounds are inconsistent with their supposed locations.
  • Love bombing.[15]
  • Refusal to video chat or talk on the phone.[citation needed]
  • When using peer-to-peer chat or video chat, their IP address does not match the city or state of their supposed location.
  • Requesting money, usually justified with a backstory and/or promise of repayment.[22]
  • Isolation of victim from real-life social circles and/or insisting the relationship remain a secret.[22]

Dangers edit

Catfishing can lead to serious potential dangers. In some cases, catfish have lured victims into threatening in-person meetings, such as in the 2002 murder of Kacie Woody and the 2007 murder of Carly Ryan. Sexual predators utilize catfishing to gain the trust of minors and/or other vulnerable people to acquire sensitive information and illicit photographs.[23] Catfishing has also been linked to a number of suicides, such as the 2006 suicide of Megan Meier.[24]

Notable instances edit

Alicia Kozakiewicz edit

Sometime between 2000 and 2001, 13-year-old Alicia Kozakiewicz befriended 38-year-old Scot Tyree of Herndon, Virginia in a Yahoo! Messenger chat room while he was posing as a boy her age. On January 1, 2002, the two planned to meet near Kozakiewicz's Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania home. After coercing Kozakiewicz into his vehicle, Tyree drove her to his home where he shackled her and held her captive, livestreaming her rape and torture from his basement dungeon. A Florida viewer submitted an anonymous tip to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) after recognizing Kozakiewicz from news stories and a National Center for Missing & Exploited Children flyer. After tracing Tyree's IP address, the FBI stormed the house and freed Kozakiewicz on January 4 at 4:10 PM. Kozakiewicz has gone on to become a motivational speaker, an internet safety and missing persons advocate, and founder of The Alicia Project.[25][26]

Kacie Woody edit

In 2002, 13-year-old Kacie Woody (screen name: modelbehavior63) of Holland, Arkansas began an online friendship with a supposed 17-year-old boy, Dave Fagen (screen name: jazzman_df) from California, who was actually 47-year-old David Fuller from La Mesa. Fuller travelled to Arkansas and abducted Woody from her home on December 3. Investigation by Arkansas law enforcement and the FBI led to the discovery of the bodies of Woody and Fuller in a rented minivan inside a Guardsmart Storage facility in Conway. Fuller had sedated Woody with chloroform, bound, raped, and shot her in the head before shooting himself upon the arrival of law enforcement.[27] Woody's friends and family subsequently founded the Kacie Woody Foundation to educate parents and children about internet safety. Her case appeared on the Investigation Discovery television shows Web of Lies and Man With a Van.[28]

Suicide of Megan Meier edit

The suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier in October 2006 is attributed to catfishing and cyberbullying committed by Lori Drew, the mother of Meier's classmate and neighbor. After claims that Meier was spreading false rumors about her daughter, Drew created a fake Myspace account under the alias of a 16-year-old boy named Josh Evans and befriended Meier, claiming to have recently moved to the nearby city of O'Fallon, Missouri. On October 16, Drew began sending hateful messages to Meier over Myspace and AOL Instant Messenger, the last of which reading "the world would be a better place without you." The same day, Meier was found dead in her closet, having hanged herself with a belt. After failed attempts to revive her, Meier was pronounced dead on October 17. In 2008, Drew was indicted and convicted of violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, but the conviction was later vacated by a federal judge on a post-trial verdict. In 2009, Drew was acquitted of cyberbullying in United States v. Drew. Tina Meier, Megan's mother, founded the Megan Meier Foundation, an organization intended to fight cyberbullying.[29][30]

Carly Ryan edit

In 2006, 14-year-old Carly Ryan of South Australia began an online relationship with a supposed American-Australian teen, Brandon Kane, who was actually 50-year-old serial pedophile Garry Francis Newman. In January 2007, Newman travelled from Melbourne to attend Ryan's 15th birthday party, posing as Kane's father. Sonya Ryan, Carly's mother, asked him to leave after he displayed erratic and inappropriate behavior. About three weeks later, Ryan was reported missing after not returning home the morning after a sleepover with friends. Her body was found floating in Horseshoe Bay, Port Elliot after being beaten, smothered with beach sand, and thrown into the ocean. Newman was arrested in connection with the crime and was found guilty of the murder in January 2010, when he was sentenced to life in prison with a 29-year non-parole period.[31][32] Sonya Ryan founded the Carly Ryan Foundation and successfully lobbied for Carly's Law to be enacted to protect Australian minors online.[33]

Thomas Montgomery and Mary Shieler edit

In 2007, Thomas Montgomery (screen name: marinesniper), a 47-year-old married man pretending to be an 18-year-old male Marine named Tommy, ended up in a love triangle with Mary Shieler (screen name: talhotblond), a middle-aged married woman pretending to be an 18-year-old woman named Jessi, and a co-worker of Montgomery's, 22-year-old Brian Barrett (screen name: beefcake). The situation resulted in Montgomery murdering Barrett in a fit of jealousy. The events were covered by 2009 documentary film and the subsequent movie adaptation, Talhotblond.[34]

Manti Te'o edit

On September 12, 2012, University of Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o announced to media outlets that his girlfriend, Stanford University student Lennay Kekua, had died of leukemia.[35] The cancer was supposedly discovered while Kekua was undergoing treatment for injuries suffered in a car accident.[36] Te'o did not miss any games for Notre Dame, saying he had made a promise to Kekua to play even if something happened to her.[37] The tragedy was heavily reported on during Te'o's strong 2012 season and emergence as a Heisman Trophy candidate.[38] On January 6, 2013, Deadspin published an article alleging that Kekua did not exist, pointing to an individual named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo as the perpetrator of a hoax relationship.[38][39] Pictures of Kekua that had been published in the media were actually of Diane O'Meara, a former classmate of Tuiasosopo.[40] On the same day the Deadspin article was published, Notre Dame issued a statement saying that "Manti had been the victim of what appears to be a hoax in which someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia."[41][42][43] Te'o became a popular target of jokes and insults after the story broke, with Dan Wetzel claiming "he lost his confidence, his swagger, even his interest in meeting and talking with people in public."[44]

The University of Virginia rape hoax story edit

In 2014, a Washington Post article[45] alleged that the Rolling Stone University of Virginia rape hoax may have been an example of catfishing in which a young woman posed as a made-up upperclassman online to stay in communication with her love interest, a young man who did not reciprocate her feelings.[8][46]

Lydia Abdelmalek serial catfishing edit

From at least mid-2011 until her arrest in mid-2016, Lydia Abdelmalek of Melbourne, Victoria assumed the identities of Australian actor Lincoln Lewis and British actor Danny Mac online.[47] Her actions resulted in the suicide of one victim, who had attended primary school with the actual Lewis, a fact that was discovered and exploited by Abdelmalek. In 2019, she was found guilty of stalking six people and was sentenced to jail for one year and nine months.[48][49] In 2022, she failed to overturn her conviction and her appeal resulted in her re-sentencing to jail for four years, with a non-parole period of two years and eight months.[47]

Kirat Assi edit

In June 2021, the first successful civil claim relating to a catfishing scam in the common law world (Kirat Assi v. Simran Kaur Bhogal) was won in the United Kingdom. Assi, a British radio presenter discovered she was the victim of a nine-year catfishing campaign perpetrated by her younger cousin Bhogal, a former Barclays investment banker.[50]

Benjamin Obadiah Foster edit

In 2023, Benjamin Obadiah Foster was convicted in Nevada of holding a woman captive in his apartment. At the time of the conviction, Foster was in Oregon torturing another woman he was keeping in captivity. Police reported he was using dating apps to find new victims, likely altering his appearance.[51] After an hours-long standoff with police surrounding his home, Foster committed suicide.[52]

See also edit

References edit

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External links edit