︎︎︎episode 38

Online Dating Special (pt 3): Catfishing, Racooning, Romance Scams, Red Flags and Motivating Factors

April 20th, 2021

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Okay, well as promised, today we’re going to talk about something near and dear to my heart (or at least really fascinating to me): catfishing.

I decided to consult the most reliable dictionary for these important social issues:  Urban Dictionary.

And here is what it said:  A fake or stolen online identity created or used for the purposes of beginning a deceptive relationship.

“Turns out the girl I thought I met online was just a catfish of a fat old man.”

I wondered if the term catfishing may have come from the bible or some great work of the literary canon, but it turns out that its origins are much more contemporary: the 2010 documentary of the same name (Catfish)by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost.

Kim, I asked you to watch it (and you did), so how would you summarize the plot? And how did you feel about when you finished?

(let’s discuss the movie here).

Cast of characters (for our reference):
  • Nev Schulman (our a main character, a photographer in NYC)
  • Abby Pierce, an 8-year-old child prodigy artist in rural Ishpeming, Michigan
  • Angela (Wesselman) (abby’s mother)
  • Angela's husband Vince;
  • and Abby's attractive older half-sister Megan, who lives in Gladstone, Michigan.

The term catfishing comes from the documentary:

According to Wired, “Angela's husband, Vince, who likely came to the catfish allegory by way of the popular Christian writer Joel Osteen, puts his own spin on it. ‘They used to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China,’ he says, mixing up the geography.’By the time the codfish reached China, the flesh was mushy and tasteless. So this guy came up with the idea that if you put these cods in these big cats, put some catfish in with them and the catfish will keep the cod agile. And there are those people who are catfish in life. They keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh.’”

The idea here is that the catfish was Angela, and she kept Nev (the cod) stimulated? It’s kinda gross for sure, but it stuck!

The success of the documentary (which to be fair, was unlike anything most of us had ever seen) lead to the MTV series Catfish:  The TV Show launching in 2012.  It is hosted by Nev (from the documentary) and mega babe silver fox Max Joseph (who gets really angry at the catfishers and I really enjoy his genuine rage and disgust).  Max left the show a few years ago and there’s been a rotation of guest hosts since then.  Nev remains.

Each episode sort of operates under the same outline:
  • Nev and Max receive an email from a person who is hopelessly in love with someone who they have never met.
    • This person often refuses to video chat/face time/send photos in real time.
    • However they text all day/all night, it’s far more romantic and intimate than any texts I have exchanged with anyone I’ve dated.  They may also talk on the phone. 
    • All of this person’s photos on social media are GORGEOUS.
    • Often this person is a model/rapper/dj/Katy Perry
    • This person’s phone always has a broken camera.
    • This person may have actually made a plan(s) to meet up with the catfishee, but never shown up (this happens very often).  Then usually there was a crisis like car accident, death, cancer that prevented them from showing up.
  • Nev and Max usually start by doing a video chat with the catfishee, collecting “evidence”
  • Next they do a reverse image search of the catfish’s photos. I would say 50% of the time they immediately realize that these photos have been stolen from someone’s else’s profile.  In the beginning this was much more common but catfish have gotten smarter about where they steal photos.  Sometimes they video chat with the person whose photos were stolen, which is always kinda surreal.
  • Usually they fly to the catfishee’s home town to meet with them.
  • They do more investigation, maybe contact the catfish.
  • It always culminates with a dramatic reveal, maybe some calmer discussion the next day. And as Nev told Wired, “Inevitably, the second they see them they have an instantaneous drain of affection.”

I learned some interesting facts from a 2013 Hollywood Reporter article called “Is ‘Catfish’ Catfishing America?”

“We found that in every instance except one, the catfisher — not the catfishee, as the series claims — has been the one to contact MTV first. Either via a casting call, Craigslist post, or a mention on the MTV website itself, the catfisher has consistently been the one to initiate the process. “

“One catfishee from the South says she and her catfisher hadn’t had contact for “a couple months” — until Catfish‘s producers showed interest. “We dropped off [talking] for a couple months and then we got it started again … when someone reached out to MTV about me and [the catfisher’s online identity] talking,” she says. “[MTV producers] hit me up, but I didn’t reach out to them because I didn’t know anything about a new show.”

Every Catfish subject told us the series’ hosts, Schulman and Joseph, are indeed kept in the dark about the true identities of the catfishers. Their Internet research into these people’s lives are, apparently, all authentic. But the crux on which the show is balanced — the initial contact between Schulman and the catfisher — is in fact a fabrication. Everyone involved has already agreed to an in-person meet up before production begins.

Naturally, this complicates how viewers watch the show. If the two parties have long agreed to meet in person, Schulman’s random selection of a catfishee by scrolling through his email no longer seems random. And his dramatic phone call to the catfisher suddenly isn’t so dramatic. Is the catfisher genuinely surprised when Schulman requests a meet-up on-camera? “Not really,” says one catfisher. “Because they told me they were going to do it before they actually did it.”

Despite any staging or fictionalizing of the series, Catfishing is in fact a real phenomenon.  And remember this statistic from my introduction to online dating:  71% of people said that they felt people on online platforms were “lying and scamming.”

That’s because it happens a lot, even though I couldn’t find a ton of press about it.   Possibly because it’s embarrassing.  Even Nev himself told Wired, “People in this situation are people who don't do their research,”

Why do people catfish?
  • Insecurity about their true selves, bodies, lives (this is one I saw a lot in early episodes of Catfish)
  • An escape from their actual lives (I think this best applies to Angela from the Catfish documentary
  • Revenge:  there’s one episode of Catfish in particular where a guy (Antwane) thinks this other guy he’s been messaging with for three years (Tony).  His best friend is his cousin Carmen and she’s along for a lot of the investigation into Tony’s true identity. And in the end...it turns out that CARMEN is Tony...and she’s been doing it for revenge! Carmen confesses that it was her all along, that she actually hates Antwane, and has been wanting revenge (FOR THREE YEARS) because he once called her a “fat ass Kelly Price.”
  • Fear of openness about their sexual orientation.  Often you’ll see a gay man pretend to be a woman/catfish a straight guy, or a gay woman pretending to be a guy to catfish a straight woman.
  • To get money!  This is another common one where the catfish is having financial issues, has little emergencies here and there and needs gift cards, money sent western union, etc
  • To catch a partner cheating

But how do people end up being catfished?
  • Loneliness, a feeling of not fitting in, maybe a lot of tough previous relationships
  • “Real” dating is not an option because they work a lot.  There are a lot of single parents on the show.
  • The desire to believe! Love is the biggest theme of movies, music, literature, art...we all want to participate in it.  From Wired, “Catfish makes obvious what most adults know: Romantic love is shot through with projection. Our phones mirror back to us our fondest hopes, and into the text bubble we pour all our yearnings”  These catfishees DON’T do the research because they don’t want to lose that hope, that illusion.

Susceptible natures


Just pasting these in here to show how the trend in romance fraud has increased so much over time!

`The FBI’s IC3 2017 Victims by Age Group Were: