What is a catfish?

By Anna Rowe defines a ‘catfish’ as: ‘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.’

The term was created by Nev Shulman’s experience of having a long term online relationship with a woman he thought to be young and single. The reality was, Angela was in her 40’s and married. Now the executive producer of MTV’s show ‘CATFISH’, which came off the back of the 2010 American film documentary of the same name, at the end of the film, Vince (husband of the lady that ‘catfished’ Nev), tells a story. He says that when live cod were shipped to Asia from North America, the fish’s inactivity in their tanks resulted in only mushy flesh reaching the destination; but fishermen found that putting catfish in the tanks with the cod kept them active, and thus ensured the quality of the fish. Vince talks of how there are people in everyone’s lives who keep us active, always on our toes and always thinking. It is implied that he believes Angela (Nev’s online romance) to be such a person.

UK newspaper The Independent, in an article about Nev:

‘To be clear, ‘catfishing’ refers to the act of luring someone into a relationship by adopting a fictional online persona with fake personal information. The term emerged from the 2010 American documentary ‘Catfish’ which follows Schulman on his journey of falling in love with a girl he has met online and later finding out she is not the person she claimed to be.’

Not all ‘fake profiles’ are catfish. Some fake profiles are created with a purpose to ‘troll’ others online or to hide the owners of illegal business transactions. Some are legitimate in reason where anonymity is needed from an abusive ex partner or similar. Some people are mistaking ‘catfishing’ with identity theft. It’s not. Identity theft is where a criminal will literally collect and steal another person’s real life personal information. This is explained by Action Fraud:

‘Identity theft happens when fraudsters access enough information about someone’s identity (such as their name, date of birth, current or previous addresses) to commit identity fraud. Identity theft can take place whether the fraud victim is alive or deceased.’

When the criminal uses this information to get money or other using your details, they are committing identity fraud.

Catfish are not into identity theft as such…

What catfish will do it trawl the internet for a suitable picture to use on their profile. Some choose to steal an everyday person’s pictures from a public Facebook Page or similar,  some will go for ‘catalogue shots’, models’ pictures which are readily available in ‘stock image’ settings online. These often allow the catfish the option of having several pictures of the same person. Some will choose to use an actor/tress’ picture, maybe from another country where the actor/tress is not known…like mine. Some go for military personnel and keep their name too. Some (like many in the show catfish) use photos of people they know and admire…

However, they don’t want ‘Joe Blogs’ life story. They want to create the image of a life that is going to touch the emotional aspects of their targets. They want to create someone who can get inside your head. This is the common thread between all catfish. It’s how they manipulate you to get what they want BUT what they may want as a result of their scam can be very different. There are many misconceptions about catfish here too.

Catfish are not all after the same thing. There are many variations to these individuals’ incentives.

What do they want from you?

I will never be able to list every motive and intention of a catfish here but if caught by one, none of them will end well for you. Without doubt, new incentives and cover stories, whether financially motivated or personally motivated will be created constantly but we are seeing some as the main culprits that have been used for many years now and are big business, financial fraud. The other type of catfish motive is very personal. It has nothing to do with financial/personal gain as such (although they can achieve this in their game), but it’s not their primary incentive. Their incentive is to get their needs met, whatever they may be…and not get caught out while doing that. However the only outcome for the victim is hurt and humiliation on many levels.

I was aware of the kind of romance scam with financial fraud being the primary motivator. If at any point my catfish had started asking for money, I would have been suspicious because I had been fortunate enough to have seen and read about these on top of training when I worked at a bank in my teens, when Nigerian money fraud very first started. I was alert to this kind of ‘game’.

Not everyone is so fortunate and the ‘hooking technique or love bombing’ used by all the catfish is the same. You can read more about Love Bombing Part 1 here and Love Bombing Part 2 here.

Of course my catfish didn’t stay online either…he became an ‘offline personal catfish’. I had an ‘in person’ relationship with him for several months after our initial three month online introduction. Is this the new breed of catfish?

You can read my post about Romance Scams with Financial Fraud here.

You can read my post about Personal Catfish here.

Anna Rowe was involved with a man she had met online for almost a year. She discovered his name and identity were fake and that he was a lawyer. Anna is a leading advocate and and lobbyist for legal reforms with regard to the practice of catfishing. Find out more at