What is catfishing? Warning signs and protection tips

A person researching catfishing warning signs.

While a message from an unknown sender might be harmless, it could be a catfishing scheme. But what is catfishing exactly? Read through this guide to find out, including how to avoid it.

Picture this: You feel your phone buzz. After checking it, you notice a follow request from someone you don’t recognize. Your brain becomes flooded with questions: Have I met this person before? Did I just forget their name? 

After further inspection, you confirm that you've never met this person. Before you can decide whether to accept the request, your phone buzzes again, this time with a message. You ask yourself, “Is this a scam?”  

While this person could be legit, it's possible they’re a catfish, and not the kind you'd find in a lake. Whether you've heard the term before or have watched Catfish: The TV Show on MTV, you might still be wondering, "What is catfishing, and how can I avoid it?”  

To help you identify any catfishing schemes, continue reading to learn more about catfishing and what you can do to avoid it.

What does it mean to be catfished?

A graphic lists three steps, answering the question, "what is catfishing?"

Catfishing is the act of impersonating someone else online using the pictures and information of others or a fictional identity. In some instances, catfishers may steal another person’s identity, including their name, photos and birthday. 

You may encounter catfishing on social media and dating apps, including:        

The term “catfish” rose to popularity following the release of a documentary called Catfish in 2010. The documentary follows an online relationship between two people, with one lying about their life and identity the entire time.

Why do people catfish?

A graphic lists eight reasons why people catfish, further answering the question, "what is catfishing?"

When it comes to catfishers, they may be deceiving others online for a multitude of reasons. In some cases, the catfisher may not even have any malicious intent.   

Some of the most common reasons for catfishing on the internet include:        

  • Shielded identity: While hiding behind a false identity, catfishers can act however they want without fear of judgment or consequences.
  • Mental illness: Those struggling with mental illness may impersonate others to gain a new confidence when communicating with people online. 
  • Revenge: Some catfishers may impersonate a specific person and hijack their online persona in hopes to make them look bad. 
  • Insecurity: If a catfisher is insecure and doesn’t like who they are in real life, they may use catfishing as a tool to create an ideal version of themselves.        
  • Targeted harassment: Certain catfishers may use their fictional identity to harass, bother, or cyberstalk others.
  • Sexual exploration: Some catfishers may use their catfishing identity as a disguise while exploring different sexual identities, experimenting with ones that are different from the one they portray in real life.
  • Loneliness: If a catfisher feels lonely in real life, they may take on a fake persona in order to comfortably  communicate with others online.
  • Financial gain: After building a relationship online, catfishers may ask their victims for money, either in gift cards or through mobile payment apps. The catfisher may even make up fake excuses for why they need money, like for travel costs or an ill family member.

How to tell if you’re being catfished: 10 warning signs

A graphic lists ten catfish warning signs, helping answer the question, "what is catfishing?"

If you’ve ever asked yourself, “Am I being catfished?” the answer might not always seem obvious. This is especially true if the catfisher you’re dealing with has a detailed and realistic profile. So, what are the signs of a catfish? We’ve compiled 10 warning signs of catfishing online to keep an eye out for.

1. They avoid video calls

If they always refuse your calls, they might be a catfish. Catfishers tend to avoid live communication because they won’t be able to hide their identity. To avoid this, they may come up with excuses, ranging from fake illnesses to phony travel plans. If this behavior continues, it’s likely that the person is lying and is afraid of being caught. 

2. They don’t have many followers or friends

One warning sign of a catfisher is if they have very few followers or friends on social media. The catfisher could be intentionally avoiding interacting with multiple people, as each additional friend or follower could be another chance of getting caught. Catfishers tend to keep their social circle small to fly under the radar.

3. They avoid meeting up in person

An invite to meet up in person is a catfisher’s worst nightmare. Because of this, many catfishers will target people outside their geographical region. If the person you’re talking to has said they are in your area and still refuses to meet up, they might be lying to conceal their identity.

4. They ask you for money

Another common sign of a catfishing scheme is if they ask you for money or gifts. In some situations, the catfisher may ask you to help pay for their travel so they can come to see you. In any case, never send money to anyone you’re unable to confirm the identity of.

5. They have a new profile

If their social media account looks freshly made, they could be a catfish. Many catfishers frequently create new profiles to catfish other people and to avoid being caught. To be safe, always keep an eye out to see how long the profile has been active.

6. They use stolen pictures

One of the biggest indicators of a catfisher is the use of stolen pictures. These pictures may be stock images, pictures of a model, or profile pictures from other accounts. You can use a reverse image search tool to see if the image has been taken from someone else.

7. They ask for explicit content

Being asked to send explicit videos or pictures is a huge red flag that you may be dealing with a catfish. If you send them what they ask for, they may use it to blackmail you for money or other sensitive content. In all cases, never send explicit content to someone you don’t know.

8. They have very few images

If a catfisher is trying to impersonate someone they don’t know, they may only have access to a select number of images. If you notice that the person you're chatting with never changes their profile pictures or they seem outdated based on their age, it may be because they aren’t who they say they are.

9. They act over the top

Whether they say they love you or try to plan a business venture together, many catfishes send over-the-top messages to build your trust. If you notice the person trying to rapidly escalate your relationship, take a step back and assess their online profile before you continue engaging with them, as it could be a romance scam.

10. They have a small online presence

In today’s age, it is common for people to have multiple social media accounts. For example, you may have a profile on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. If the person in question only has one account and you can’t find evidence of them anywhere else, you may be interacting with an account that isn’t a real person.

How to deal with being catfished

Now that you know how to tell if someone is a catfish, you may be wondering what you should do if it happens to you. If you end up finding out that the person you're talking to isn’t who they say they are, act quickly and follow these steps:    

  1. Stop all communication: In a last-minute attempt to win back your trust, a catfisher may tell you anything you want to hear. Because of this, it's important that you stop all communication with them immediately. 
  2. Block them: Next, you should block the catfisher on every platform they’ve used to communicate with you. This will keep them from ever seeing your profile or messaging you again.
  3. Report them: Lastly, you should report the catfish’s account to the website or platform you used to communicate with them. This can help prevent them from catfishing people again. 

If you were ever defrauded of any money during your interactions or experienced other cybercrimes, contact the police and report the scam to a scam tracker like the ones from the Better Business Bureau and Federal Bureau of Investigation.

How to outsmart a catfish: 7 cybersecurity tips

A graphic lists seven cybersecurity tips to help you outsmart a catfish, further answering the question, "what is catfishing?"

With knowledge of the warning signs of a catfisher and how to deal with one, it’s time to learn how you can avoid them. Follow these cybersecurity tips to avoid catfishes and safely browse the web.

  • Stay cautious: Whenever you’re talking to somebody online who you’ve never met in person, you must always be cautious. This is especially important if you are just now learning about them or have no proof that they are who they say they are.        
  • Ask for an audio or video call: Asking for a video call is a surefire way to discover if the person you're chatting with is the same as the one in their pictures. If they continuously refuse, it could be because they're afraid they'll get caught.        
  • Run a reverse image search: To see if a person's pictures actually are their own, you can perform a reverse image search. In some cases, a stolen image may show up on another person's social media account or in a stock photograph.        
  • Do your research: If you’re engaging with someone new online, be sure to do your research. Even a simple Google search can help you quickly uncover a catfish. While watching for red flags, input the person’s name into other social media sites to see if their profile seems legit.
  • Ask specific questions: If you’re suspicious you’re dealing with a catfish, ask them questions only someone with their specific background would know. For example, if they say they live in your area, ask them a  question only a local could answer.
  • Update your privacy settings: If you keep your social media accounts private, you can vet and control who can see your profile. By only letting in people you know and trust, a catfisher will be unable to message you or learn personal details about you from your profile.
  • Ask your friends for advice: When in doubt, reach out to your friends for a second opinion. This is especially helpful if you’ve already begun speaking to the suspicious person, as you may not have a clear view of the situation due to your connection with them. 

Now that you know how to avoid catfishing online, you may be wondering how you can keep your social media accounts safe from any internet scams. Fortunately, by following proper cybersecurity practices and using strong passwords, you can like, tap, and scroll in peace, knowing you and your information are safe.

FAQs about online catfishing

Still unsure about what catfishing means? Read through these answers to some common catfishing questions.

Where did the term “catfish” come from?

Although the term “catfish” was made popular following the release of the 2010 documentary of the same name, the term originates from the early 1900s. During this time, anglers would ship cod from Alaska to China. To keep the cod moving during the trip, anglers would throw in catfish to chase them around. Similar to this, an online catfisher also keeps you on your toes, unsure of what’s real or fake.

What does it mean to be catfished?

If you're interacting with someone online and they aren't being truthful about their identity, you may be a victim of catfishing.

What does it mean to catfish someone?

Catfishing someone online is when you communicate with them under the disguise of a profile with an identity that does not match your own. 

What does catfishing mean in dating?

Catfishing sometimes takes shape in the form of online dating. When it comes to catfishing on dating apps, you could be in an online relationship for months before realizing you are dealing with a catfish.

What is the point of catfishing?

The point of catfishing is typically to scam, troll, or harass someone. In certain instances, however, a catfisher may not have any malicious intent and would simply rather speak to someone behind the protection of another identity. This could be due to insecurity or fear of judgment.  

Clare Stouffer
  • Clare Stouffer
  • Gen employee
Clare Stouffer, a Gen employee, is a writer and editor for the company’s blogs. She covers various topics in cybersecurity.

Editorial note: Our articles provide educational information for you. Our offerings may not cover or protect against every type of crime, fraud, or threat we write about. Our goal is to increase awareness about Cyber Safety. Please review complete Terms during enrollment or setup. Remember that no one can prevent all identity theft or cybercrime, and that LifeLock does not monitor all transactions at all businesses. The Norton and LifeLock brands are part of Gen Digital Inc. 


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