The growing popularity of online dating apps has led to a sharp rise in catfishing, a deceptive practice where people create fake profiles to lure someone into a relationship. But what happens when you get caught in a catfisher’s net of lies? Here, victims open up about the emotional impact of being duped online, and explain why they find it difficult to trust again
The MTV show Catfish has given us 10 years of framing romantic deception as entertainment, and judging by the responses to shows such as The Tinder Swindler, our interest in catfishing is not going to wane any time soon.
When podcast hosts The 2 Johnnies recently shared a story about the convoluted lengths a catfish went to in order to contact one of them and around 40 other men while using stolen photos, the nation was hooked, and Twitter was flooded with responses and similar stories being shared.
These stories are often hard to follow since the level of deception and planning involved is not something the average person would consider doing. When the catfish is revealed at the end of the MTV show, they are given the opportunity to explain why they deceived the victim. The less nefarious reasons range from mental or physical insecurities and fear of rejection to exploring sexual preferences and gender dysmorphia; the more malicious reasons include revenge for a perceived personal rejection, jealousy, or that the victim was simply collateral damage in the catfish’s trail of destruction as they lash out at the world. Some may also be adults talking to children online and attempting to groom them in exchange for photos or real-life meetings.
We seem to love a good catfish story… when it happens to someone else. Yet, while it might make for a fun water-cooler conversation, pretending to be someone different to who your partner thinks you are has very real repercussions for victims.
The impact of catfishing can be traumatising and far-reaching. Take Andrea, a Dublin business owner in her 30s, who met her catfish on Tinder and noticed that while he did have pictures on his profile, they were quite dark and grainy. When they met up in person, she thought he looked a little different but didn’t say it. “I had a weird feeling about the photos, if they were really him, but I couldn’t tell,” she recalls.
After a year of dating, she was contacted by two different women on social media who claimed that they too were seeing this man and he was on a dating app. Andrea then decided to become the catfish herself to try to figure out if these women were telling the truth.
“I went onto the dating app and set up a fake profile to see if he was there, which he was. I started messaging him and confirmed that it was him. I set up another account on another platform, as I wanted to convince myself this was definitely him. I used random pictures of girls I knew he would go for, and it lured him in. He tried to make plans to meet up with this account.” It was the proof Andrea needed to break up with him, but this was only the beginning of her discoveries.
She later found out that he had numerous aliases and accounts on multiple dating apps and social media platforms, and soon discovered a more sinister layer to his deception. “I also found out that he had stalked me online by setting up fake profiles on social media before we matched on Tinder. I found old messages from him in my message requests folders that I hadn’t seen before. I also realised that he had a blank account on Instagram which he used to follow me and anyone who liked my posts or followed me. When I connected all the dots, it felt like a whirlwind of craziness.”
This activity moves beyond a harmless story on a TV show, and into the realm of stalking and harassment, both of which have damaging consequences for the victim.
“He was living multiple different lives with different women, different profiles, and he had been doing this for years. I couldn’t understand how he was able to juggle all these accounts and different women as well as hold down a job and our relationship, as I was so intertwined in his life. I feel that people like him are manipulative predators who get a kick out of hurting people. I watched Catfish for years but look at it now with a completely different lens. It’s viewed as entertainment, but it should be seen as abuse and violation of trust. These are people’s lives, not a funny show. I was devastated by what happened to me.”
What does the catfish get from duping others about their identity? Dr Chris Dietzel from Montreal’s McGill University researches how people use dating apps, and explains that loneliness is one of the main reasons why people engage in catfishing. “Someone might be a catfish because they want to connect, chat and make friends, and so they present an image of someone who they think would be desirable to other people. Someone may feel insecure or be displeased with how they look, so they rely on the images of someone they think is more attractive in order to catch other people’s attention. Dr Dietzel says people may also catfish because of feelings of escapism or “thinking of themselves as a different person with a different identity”.
Other catfishers have a financial motivation, as they lure in victims before asking for money. Last year, victims in the UK lost almost £79m (€93.4m) to romance scammers. Gardaí recently issued warnings about being alert to similar scams here.
Alice, a member of the queer community in Ireland, who is in her 30s, believes catfishing is rampant and often done for malicious reasons.
“I know many people who have encountered fake profiles set up to target people they don’t like, or ex-partners of new partners. They’ll then screenshot and share around any sexts or messages that they deem to be ‘embarrassing’.
“It’s often done out of jealousy or manipulation,” she says. “I don’t trust anyone anymore because people are catfishing more than ever these days. For a community that is supposed to build each other up, we tear each other down so much.”
This behaviour can be considered cyberbullying, and the use of private messages to embarrass someone publicly is an intentional act of abuse, as it has the goal of harming the victim in their private and public lives.
Alice now feels she cannot date or make friends in the way she wants to, and the fear that someone has an ulterior motive is always in the back of her mind.
“When the messages are shared around, it feels like they are used as bait or ammunition, and you can feel quite exposed and vulnerable. You also feel like you’ve been made a fool of just by being yourself, and it takes away from who you are. It makes you feel a little worthless. You know you shouldn’t, but you do anyway.”
Frequently on Catfish, the catfishers would explain that they were afraid of dating in the real world due to their sexuality. Dr Dietzel suggests that online dating can be a safer way for someone to explore their sexuality if it is not safe in reality: “For queer people specifically, catfishing could be used as a tool to explore their gender and/or sexual identities,” he says. “Especially for someone who is not out, catfishing could allow them to see what it would be like to present as someone else or a different version of themselves.” However, while this might be affirming for the catfish, their victim still experiences potentially devastating consequences.
While catfishing is often done with malicious or conscious intent, kittenfishing is another online practice involving deception. Users are not outright catfishes but they will lie about some aspects of their lives or personalities, or alter their photos, with the goal of appearing more desirable.
Due to how widespread online deception is in modern dating and internet culture, many people expect others to lie about some aspects of themselves on dating apps, and view it as just one of the challenges of finding love online. However, this acceptance doesn’t mitigate the impact it has on daters.
Meanwhile, the increasing use of filters and photo editing means photos are often not reflective of reality, as Waterford-based radio presenter Michelle Heffernan discovered.
“I had one recent date where I met a guy from an app who I thought looked nice. He looked quite buff in his photos. I asked him to do a video call and he agreed but kept putting it on the long finger. I decided to meet him anyway, but when I saw him walking toward me, I thought, ‘Is that the person I’m meeting?’ He was bald, but he had hair in all his photos, and he had more of a dad bod than a ripped body. I don’t know how he thought I wouldn’t notice he was so different from his photos.”
Michelle believes kittenfishing is deception, and with that comes a level of blaming yourself. “Especially as a woman, we can self-blame so much,” she says. “I often ask myself if I was prudent enough, did I do enough checks, did I take enough precautions? But this is victim blaming, and the other person should always be honest.”
She was shocked when she realised she had been deceived, she adds, yet she felt she couldn’t call the person out for their deception, for fear of repercussions. “As a woman, I can feel vulnerable on a date, so to speak up and challenge someone might leave me at risk. Sometimes, I feel it’s better to nod along and get through the situation safely.”
These repeated experiences of catfishing and kittenfishing have left her disillusioned and exhausted from getting her hopes up. “There’s a real mix of emotions for me, from anger, self-blame, frustration, fear, along with pity for the person. The overall experience leaves me feeling unable to continue to be optimistic about relationships and dating when you keep having these experiences.”
Similarly, Paul, a forty-something from Dublin, says kittenfishing is so common that he is on the verge of giving up on online dating. “It’s everywhere. Every date I’ve had for the last few years, the woman who turned up has looked different. Sometimes, I don’t even make it to a date as they block me when I suggest meeting up in real life. I’m not here to be someone’s entertainment, I am a real person with feelings.”
Paul says that being constantly disappointed and lied to has impacted his self-esteem: “I have to force myself to remember that they aren’t doing it just to me, but it can be hard. I just want someone to be honest as I am a very honest person, and I feel like maybe they don’t think I deserve respect.”
When asked if he mentions it to the women who turn up, Paul says, “All that gets me is backlash, and they get offended.” He also suspects that some of the people he has spoken to have not been genuine: “I’ve heard my friends who are women say that sometimes they get together and message people for a laugh and, looking back, some of the messages I got did seem like they were written by different people. It makes me feel vulnerable, and there’s a massive fear and dread that they would post the messages that I sent, like sexts or intimate details about me. It makes me feel cagey and like I need proof of who they are, which feels weird.
“It also makes me feel stupid, as if I’m just some idiot for these people to take advantage of. I feel like I need a break from it all.” Paul’s note about vulnerability is an important one: intimate relationships require vulnerability, and when this is compromised from the very beginning, it can be hard to build a trusting relationship where intimacy and openness is present.
According to cyberpsychologist Dr Nicola Fox Hamilton from the Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT), the impact of catfishing and romance scams on victims can be long-lasting as the victim tries to process deception, violation of trust and consent. “There can be psychological consequences including PTSD, depression and anxiety, the loss of social support systems and social isolation. People might also feel fearful or angry in reaction to being catfished,” she says.
There’s grief for the end of the relationship, too. “One of the main consequences of finding out that you’ve been involved in a romance scam is the loss of the relationship that the victim considered to be perhaps the most important relationship in their life at that time,” she explains.
Michelle has developed a system to try to avoid being catfished. “I’ve learnt the hard way to try to vet people as much as possible. Even before the pandemic, I used to speak to people on the phone before meeting them to get a better sense of who they were, rather than just meeting them after a couple of messages.”
However, this wasn’t always successful: “Sometimes I would ask them to get verified or to do a video call, and I would instantly get blocked.” Dr Hamilton explains that anonymity facilitates this kind of behaviour: “Often they don’t intend to take the relationship offline and perhaps don’t realise how much it might hurt the other person to find out the truth. I think that online disinhibition probably plays a part in this kind of catfishing. But also, they cannot see the reaction of the person they’re talking to and so they might minimise or forget that there’s an emotional impact to what they’re doing.”
One thing is clear: catfishing is a clear violation of consent, as we cannot consent to sex with someone who is misrepresenting who they are. “Catfishing, where someone is masquerading as someone else in order to engage in sexual activity, is a very clear breach of consent,” explains Noeline Blackwell, CEO of Dublin Rape Crisis Centre.
“The 2017 Sexual Offences Act is very clear that, ‘A person does not consent to a sexual act if he or she is mistaken as to the identity of any other person involved in the act’,” she explains. “So yes, catfishing is non-consensual sexual activity and is wrong and harmful and may well be criminal behaviour.”
The use of multiple accounts to message someone may also be a violation of Coco’s Law, which covers digital harassment. UK activists have called for catfishing to be recognised as a crime that is connected to domestic violence and coercive control, since it is concerned with power and control over victims, often leaving them with the same feeling of violation.
Andrea agrees that catfishing is a violation of consent: “I thought I was consenting to sex with this man that I thought I knew and thought I was in a monogamous relationship with. We were having unprotected sex, and I didn’t consent to him risking my health by having sex with other women.
“He was aware that I had ongoing health issues, and any exposure to an STI or even Covid would have been extremely serious for me. My consent was taken away.”
Understandably, this experience has left Andrea wary about dating, and she struggles with the idea of trusting someone again. “It felt like a mad, chaotic unravelling of my relationship and of reality, and I feel like a victim of abuse. It has a lasting effect on people. To this day, I cannot let people in. I can’t trust them. Unless I have known them before, I don’t let people in. There are so many layers of damage to catfishing.”
Andrea started talking to a therapist to try to process her experience and was later diagnosed with Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD). Her experience strengthens calls for catfishing to be seen as a sexual crime and situating it in discussions of stalking, harassment and domestic abuse gives power to victims to name their experiences and feel they will be taken seriously.
Like Andrea, Emily and Paul did not want to be photographed for fear of repercussions, such as trolling or victim blaming. Paul says his friends don’t understand his anguish and would mock him for speaking out. “They think I should just be happy someone turns up for a date,” he says. They all experienced victim blaming in real life and were fearful of being targeted online, especially after recent high-profile coverage of domestic and sexual violence court cases. Victim blaming is rampant when it comes to sexual violence, and similar to ‘sextortion’ and image-based sexual abuse, the victim is often blamed for going on dating apps in the first place.
Michelle tries to have empathy for catfishers. “We all want to feel special, and maybe that’s why they do this,” she rationalises. “It’s a real reach for connection, in a world where loneliness seems to be so common.”
However, other people should not be casualties in someone’s quest to deal with their inner turmoil, nor should they have their consent violated as collateral damage.
Some names have been changed