Jamie’s Note: Wow, I haven’t updated this thing for nearly a year. Oops. Been pre-occupied with my daughter’s battle with blood cancer. See our website for information if you would like to know more or order some of the fun, geeky items we have for sale to help out our family. Otherwise, enjoy the new content!
Catfish. Just the name brings up memories of the family lake in Sand Mountain, Alabama, my grandfather teaching me how to bait my hook and cast out my line. We’d take our catch up to the pumphouse over the old well and filet them, taking the fresh meat to my grandmother’s kitchen to fry up for dinner. I love me some catfish.
Of course, in the online world catfish has come to take on a whole ‘nother meaning. It refers to “someone who pretends to be someone they’re not using Facebook or other social media to create false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances.” In other words, people lie about who they are to scam you with love. And that, dear reader, is what someone tried on me just a few days ago.
I friend anyone on Facebook who asks, since I use it to promote my business and writing and sell t-shirts, etc. This has opened me to a ton of spam, porn-site invitations, and more. These I block with the practiced precision of a skeet-shooter. But every once in awhile a fake profile is used to try to scam me.
Sometimes it’s a copycat profile made to resemble a friend, and they’re in trouble! Trapped in a foreign airport with their passport stolen, they need me to wire money so they can get a replacement. Other times they pretend to sell me something but try to use shady payment methods (usually with a sob story) to get me to go along with it. I’ve had profiles pretend to be bank or credit card representatives in order to get me to disclose account numbers. There are other variations, but you get the idea.
Incidentally, in researching this entry I learned where the term Catfish for online scamming came from. A man named Vince Pierce had this to say:
“They used to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China. They’d keep them in vats in the ship. By the time the codfish reached China, the flesh was mush and tasteless. So this guy came up with the idea that if you put these cods in these big vats, put some catfish in with them and the catfish will keep the cod agile. And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank god for the catfish because we would be droll, boring and dull if we didn’t have somebody nipping at our fin.”
Enter the Catfish
The above profile greeted me via Facebook messenger a few times, and smelling something fishy (cat-fishy?) from the outset I was pretty lukewarm in my responses.
“She” asked and got curt answers and waited a day to try again, revealing hints that English is not her first language. (I’m going with the feminine pronoun here but there is every chance this is a dude from Nigeria.) “You do live alone?” “Nope.” “Okay. Tell me more about you then..” I tried to make it clear that I wasn’t a lonely guy desperate for love so she would move along.
By this point it was Saturday and I was sitting in my daughter’s outpatient room at the cancer center. Instead of doing something more productive, I decided to mess with this person and waste “her” time.
Google Image Search is a first line of defense to spot a Catfish. I used the tool to reverse-search several images from her profile, and came up with nothing. That meant these photos were either genuine (highly unlikely) or these photos were taken from some account not searched and indexed by Google. I was dealing with an Advanced Catfish!
I started answering questions in more detail, started acting a bit mor interested without actually lying. Sure enough, she wanted to quickly establish our romantic connection. She went me a list of questions to answer!
These are the Questions for you…
- What do you think true love is ?
- Do you believe in soul mates ?
- What is your idea of romance ?
- Do you think romance is an important part of a relationship and tell me why ?
- If you had one wish what would it be ?
- What have you learned about love from other people ?
- Do you believe true love can conquer all ?
- What is your favorite scripture and why ?
- What is the most romantic thing you have ever gotten from a woman ?
- What is your favorite Holiday? Holy Holiday ?
- What is the best holiday gift you ever received ?
- What would be your ideal way of spending the holidays as a family ?
- If you could change one thing in your life, what would it be and why ?
- Who has been the most influential person in your life and why ?
- How stable is your life ?
- Do you believe in Truthfulness and Honesty ?
- Have you ever fallen in Love before ? And who ?
- What is your favorite color ?
- Do you smoke or take alcohol ?
- What’s your experience about internet dating ?
- What do you do for fun ?
- Do you really want a relationship with me ?
- Will you take care of my flight fare if someday we plan to meet ?
Number 23 is obviously the most telling here. That absolutely confirmed who I was really dealing with:
Miss Mudcat was happy to send me lots of pictures, but one way to trip up a Catfish is to ask for a specific pose or gesture—something not so easy using someone else’s photos. I asked her to send me a picture flashing me a Peace Sign.
I made my fishy paramour answer every question I did, though the answers were vague and generally just trying to line up with my own beliefs. It was actually getting boring, so I think she began to sense I was slipping away. She threw a Hail Mary in the middle of the night: “Oh yeah. Took a picture yesterday night, was out with my cousin for dinner.. I did a peace sign…lol”
My first thought after “What the flapping hell is that?!” was “What a crappy Photoshop.” After my morning coffee and fiber-rich oatmeal, I hit Google Image search and instantly found a picture of Lindsay Lohan that looked suspiciously similar. Same hair, same coat, same car, same peace sign. Only the face had been badly, badly slapped on with an ugly stick.
I held onto this as she continued to talk about her visit to Atlanta so she could see me, not at all troubled by my fiancee and new baby and giant family—though she did say that “I feel I would be happier having my own family with you. Our kids, our own family. And make me a better wife for our kids and a better woman for you.”
I suggested a Skype video chat or at least a phone call. She said her phone “isn’t so very good.” Uh huh.
I told her I could look into buying her a plane ticket, so I would need her full name and date of birth. And that my brother could pick her up and take her to the airport. No bueno. “And wouldn’t want your brother coming around because it will seem somehow. Or maybe you’re doubting me or my existence?” I never once expressed doubt as to her “existence,” so it was telling that she brought it up. But I guess she felt by then I was not going to be sending money, so she went quiet for a day. I decided to go ahead and lay it all out for her.
I showed her the Lohan and picture and how obviously fake it was. I showed her that it only takes a little effort to swap faces, and to do a better job than she did.
I told her that a good mark isn’t that bright and is actually lonely, that she should have a cover story that matched her bad English, that she needed to keep her story straight and develop a consistent character instead of being so vague and desperate. Or …
“How about you try to get an honest job instead of trying to steal from people?”
Her response was priceless:
You’re really funny dear.
Are you for real about all you’re saying.”
A friend looked up the phone number using a paid service — for a good time call 626-716-9644 — and found it belonged to an overseas online texting service.
Our brief digital romance ended as suddenly as it began, with no money changing hands. Peace out.
Advice for Online Lonelyhearts
I’ve been in the online world a long time. When I joined it was on a 1200 baud modem that made an obnoxious fax-machine noise when it connected. I even experienced online romance during this era, a girl who was a college DJ in New York who chatted with me for weeks before we started talking on the phone and sending each other gifts in the mail—including the best mix-tape anyone ever made for me. It fizzled out before a tentative bus trip to meet her, but it was as real a “romance” as two people can have with the long-distance tools available in 1994. I’ve also seen the scams crop up as the digital world evolved into something more complex and widespread. I’m also a distrustful skeptic. And I’m cheap.
Others are not so lucky. When I posted the Catfish Saga on Facebook, a few friends contacted me privately. One said “my brother in law was taken by a Russian girl whom had him send her money for plane tickets dumb ass did it 4 times before we were able to get him to stop it, took about a year.” Another told an even more dramatic story about a guy who kept up an online romance with a girl only to later claim to be trapped in Africa, his daughter held hostage by a hospital until her medical bills were paid. Both individuals were out a lot of money, some soulless bastard looking for an easy payday by preying upon honest people looking for love.
The Golden Rule
Do not give intimate photos, private or embarrassing information, or anything else that someone malicious can use against you. The most evil catfish will resort to blackmail if the romance angle doesn’t pan out.
- If someone appears out of nowhere and seems to rush a connection or relationship, it might be a catfish.
- If the person you’re talking to only wants to communicate through chat and text, it might be a catfish.
- If the individual needs money for you to meet in real life, it’s almost definitely a catfish.
It’s okay to be suspicious, and a few steps can help you out.
- Google Image Search is your friend. Check out some of the pictures and see if they are stolen from someone else’s profile or are stock photography.
- Google the name, email, phone number. See if it pops up on any scam warning sights or appears connected to other individuals.
- Ask to video chat, or barring that suggest something specific that’s probably not going to be found in a stack of stolen photos. (See my Peace Sign example above, harmless but specific.)
Be careful out there. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Stay smart and stay safe. There are many fish in the sea . . . just remember that the only good catfish is the one on your dinner plate.