Last year, Haritha (name changed), a 44-year-old Hyderabad-based divorcee got duped in a malicious romance scam after she joined a matrimonial website and began a romantic relationship with a "doctor". It seemed like the start of a budding romance as their online relationship progressed rapidly after exchanging numbers.
The man posing as a "doctor" told Haritha that he was residing with his daughter in the UK and had lost his wife in a car crash. A typical sob story through which catfish scammers often evoke sympathy for themselves from the victim.
In Haritha's eyes, things were getting serious as he told her that he was flying down to India to meet her and seek her parents' blessings for marriage. However, in a strange turn of events, Haritha allegedly got a call from the customs department informing her that her soon-to-be fiance was taken into custody for money laundering as he was caught travelling with bundles of cash and gifts.
Continuing the deception, the "customs officer" asked Haritha to send over Rs. 5 lakh to secure his release. Since it appeared like an emergency, she sent the money without much thought. It was only later that she realized she had been cheated in romance fraud. The case was finally cracked when the man was arrested in Noida.
This is one of many countless cases of catfish scammers targetting unsuspecting victims who are looking for love. Before we delve into the psychological reasons that drive someone to lure potential victims into a fake romantic relationship, let's understand the extent of catfishing and the meaning of the term.
What is Catfishing on social media and why do they call it "Catfish"?
The term catfish owes its genesis to Catfish, the documentary that inspired the MTV show "Catfish". The 2010 documentary was about Nev, who was being catfished by a woman named Angela. Needless to say, Angela was hiding her true identity and told Nev multiple lies to continue and strengthen their online relationship.
Once the beans spilled and Angela's act was exposed, her husband, Vince coined the term ‘catfish’ by metaphorically comparing her sneaky behaviour to a catfish. But why in the world did he choose the word ‘catfish’? Here’s his explanation: "They used to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China. They’d keep them in vats on 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,” Angela’s husband, Vince explains.
In simple words, catfish means to seduce a person online using false information for personal or financial reasons. The term soon caught on and people were coming out with their own horror stories of being duped by an online relationship. Casey Donovan, an Australian singer, came out with her story of being catfished for 6 years; the detailed account is present in her memoir. Then there was the case of NBA star Chris Andersen getting involved in a massive “catfishing” scheme that launched an international criminal investigation and the woman landing in prison.
In every catfish case, no matter how big or small, there is a victim who bears the emotional and psychological trauma of being duped. But to get to the bottom of the catfish epidemic, we need to step into the shoes of the perpetrator. What encourages them to plan this elaborate deception?
So, why do people catfish?
A study by the Conversation, a science publication, investigated this question by interviewing 27 people around the world who self-identified as catfishers.
Loneliness and low self-esteem
The researcher dug deep into their motivations and feelings about their catfishing behaviour and found interesting insights. Forty-one per cent of the catfishers mentioned loneliness as the reason for their catfishing. "I just wanted to be more popular and make friends that could talk to me, some part of the day," said one respondent.
A lonely childhood and ongoing struggles with social connections were high up on the list of motives too. Most catfishers also struggled with body image and self-esteem issues that pushed them to adopt a false identity. "I had lots of self-esteem problems … I actually consider myself ugly and unattractive … The only way I have had relationships has been online and with a false identity, " a respondent explained.
Another respondent said: "If I try to send my real, unedited pictures to anyone that seems nice, they stop responding to me. It's a form of escapism, or a way of testing what life would be like if you were the same person but more physically attractive."
Exploring sexuality and escapism
Some reported using false identities or personas to explore their sexuality or gender identity. For example: "I was catfishing women because I am attracted to women but have never acted on it … I pretend to be a man as I would prefer to be in the male role of a heterosexual relationship than a female in a homosexual relationship."
A large majority of the responses also pointed out a desire to escape: "It could seem magical, being able to escape your insecurities … But in the end, it only worsens them." The catfishers attributed feelings of guilt and self-loathing as a trigger for their deceptive behaviour: "It's hard to stop the addiction. Reality hit, and I felt like a shitty human."
Surprisingly, some of them felt guilty to an extent that they wanted to confess to their victims and continue relations even after coming clean. The researchers revealed, a lot of victims accepted this proposal and in fact, stayed in touch with their ‘catfish’.
A quarter of respondents blamed practicality or circumstance for their catfishing endeavours. One said: "Being too young for a website or game meant I had to lie about my age to people, resulting in building a complete persona."
The need for human connection and desire to be an ideal self seems to be the main reason why people turn to social catfishing. Hiding behind a screen serves as an outlet for the expression of many different desires and urges. Although not yet officially a crime, it is never a victimless act.
Whilst it can drain the victim emotionally and dent their ability to trust their partner in the future. It appears that catfishers don't have the motive to intensionally hurt people. Instead, they are just individuals lacking social connections.
In an interview with The Conversation, psychologist Jean Twenge has argued that the post-millennial generation is growing up with smartphones in hand at an early age and are thus spending more time in the relatively "safe" online world than in real-life interactions, especially compared with previous generations. Falling victim to and catfishing others are likely to be side-effects for this generation in particular.
How bad is the catfishing scene in India?
The Times of India had reported on the most common scams you'd come across on a dating site, starting with the Russian wives scam.
Russian wives scam
A beautiful young woman starts chatting up an older man online. After instant messaging for weeks, the "woman" expresses an interest in visiting India to learn about Bollywood and Indian culture but says she can't due to lack of money. Altaf Halde, global business head of cybersecurity firm Network Intelligence, says that by this time, the man starts feeling sorry for her. "Then in a fit of generosity, he transfers a sum of money for the travel."
He explains that the transfers are made through a service like Western Union rather than a bank account so that tracking the recipient becomes difficult. The next day, the man will get an image of the woman conversing with the man's wife on a social media site - a threat to send more money or risk his wife learning about his extramarital affair. Senior inspector of Pune's cybercrime cell Radhika Phadke says that every week, they get at least one application from someone who has fallen victim to online dating fraud. "But very few come forward to lodge an FIR."
The "damsel in distress" scammer
In 2018, a 29-year-old Bengaluru-based engineer Suman Reddy posed as a woman on Locanto, an app for picking up female escorts and duped gullible men. By the time the police got a whiff of his fake profile and catfish scam, Reddy had made lakhs off of 500 people. His online scam was based on getting sympathy donations. He made up excuses for needing money such as medical emergencies, sudden travel plans, or a credit card getting stolen. To hide his tracks, he'd always insist on digital payment.
There have been multiple reports of this kind of scam. For instance, a software engineer in Bengaluru has duped of Rs 60 lakh by a “woman” who sweet-talked him and then asked for Rs 30,000 for her father’s treatment at a Kolkata hospital.
The webcam scam
Cybersecurity company Kaspersky Lab says a common scam involves conmen who claim to be living abroad in Eastern Europe or Southeast Asia wooing Indian women.
After establishing trust, the catfisher asks the woman to video chat but leaves his camera off, making up an excuse of a broken webcam. With flattery and persistence, he convinces his "partner" to partially strip or perform sensual acts on camera. He then uses a video recording of the same to blackmail the woman for money.
Targetting gay men
Catfish scammers often target queer individuals on online dating apps as they are more reluctant to go to the police. Mumbai-based Ashish, unfortunately, fell victim to a similar scam. While in Delhi for work, Ashish matched with an attractive man on a dating app and decided to meet his date on the same day. However, a complete stranger showed up on the date. “The man said he was part of an escort service and demanded Rs 20,000. When I refused, he started abusing me,” Ashish says.
Two other men joined the man and physically assaulted Ashish, they snatched away his chain and phone too. Luckily, Ashish escaped after kicking one of the gang members. When he arrived back in Mumbai, he spoke to his friends about the incident. “After I spoke about it, I realized that many people in the gay community had faced similar situations,” he says.
Ishaan Sethi, who co-founded the Delta app to give the LGBT community a safer way to date, says that scams have reduced after the repeal of Section 377, but extortion and blackmail cases continue to exist. “Earlier people were scared of getting arrested. Now that fear is alleviated but there is still the fear of public shaming,” he adds.
Are you being catfished?
Shooting your shot at love through dating apps is great and nothing to be ashamed of. It's the only way we can safely meet new people in the pandemic era but unfortunately, pesky scammers will still try to infiltrate the dating pool and trick you. Here are some tips to avoid getting catfished and red flags to look out for when getting to know an online lover.
Broken webcam or no camera: According to Very Well Mind, people who catfish avoid giving out their mobile number or showing their face on Skype and other video chatting platforms. They will keep making excuses as to why they can't show themselves to you but will force you to reveal your face on camera.
Their profile picture never changes or looks fake: If you are suspicious about their profile picture, do a reverse google image search and see if they've donned somebody else's picture as their own. Another red flag is if they have very few pictures of themselves on the dating app and on and their social media profile.
They ask you for financial favours: Despite being an obvious red flag, victims often buy into the catfish's sob story and lend them money. The fake stories can range from accidents, family emergencies, and illnesses such as cancer. They could also pretend to be travelling to meet you and asking for funds to do so.
They are secretive and vague about their past: If you're in a relationship with a catfish, you might feel like you don't really know the person intimately. Catfish often shy away from their personal history, future plans, family members, and current job.
They're moving too fast: Catfish usually don't waste any time in declaring their "love" for you. If a person you've recently met online is telling you they want to get engaged or married to you, it's likely you're being catfished. Their attention and love may make you feel warm but remember that it's a manipulation tactic.