Catfishing (per Urban Dictionary): “the phenomenon of internet predators who fabricate online identities and social circles to trick people into emotional/romantic relationships.” The term was coined in the documentary film Catfish, in which a protagonist’s father explains how cod, when shipped internationally, are placed in vats with nipping catfish to keep the cod lively; he compares the catfish to people who “keep you guessing.” This map highlights some notable catfishers and their catchers.
Catfish tells the story of 24-year-old New York City photographer Yaniv “Nev” Schulman’s online entanglement with a Midwestern family. After eight-year-old Abby Pierce sends him a painting she allegedly made from one of his photographs, Nev develops online friendships with Abby; her mother, Angela; father, Vince; and older half sister, Megan. When Nev’s relationship with Megan turns romantic, his brother Ariel Schulman and their friend Henry Joost decide to film its evolution. Nev uncovers some lies in Megan’s emails, prompting the three men to take a road trip to rural Michigan, where the Pierces live, to confront the family with camera rolling. They bear scant resemblance to his internet buddies—particularly his love interest.
In 2012 Nev Schulman teamed with MTV to host Catfish: The TV Show, a series featuring other people involved in online romances who want to authenticate their admirers’ identities. Each episode features a different couple and the story of their meeting and interactions. Schulman researches the sweethearts in question and uses background checks to determine whether they are telling the truth or are catfish. The show ends with each couple meeting in person for the first time, with varying reactions.
The media erupted in January 2013 when sports website Deadspin revealed that Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s beloved girlfriend, whose death had inspired his stellar 2012 season, had never existed. Te’o initially claimed he had met Stanford undergraduate Lennay Kekua in person after a 2009 football game; they then kept in touch via Twitter, telephone and visits until Kekua lost her battle with leukemia the same day Te’o’s grandmother died.
According to Deadspin, however, the romance was built on a baffling number of lies: The couple had never met, and Kekua was actually a man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, an acquaintance of Te’o’s who later confessed he had used the female alias to explore his own sexuality. Tuiasosopo stole photos of his former classmate Diane O’Meara from her Facebook profile to pose as Kekua online. Even after Kekua’s “death,” Tuiasosopo continued to contact Te’o as Kekua’s equally fake sister, U’ilani Rae. “Shout out to Ms. @uilanirae,” Te’o once tweeted, “one of the realist [sic] people I know.”
Catfish: The TV Show host Nev Schulman claimed a woman named Donna Tei had contacted him months before the story broke, hoping he could identify the person posting her photos on Twitter as @uilanirae.
When documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) sarcastically congratulated the Catfish producers for their “fake documentary” after a Sundance festival screening, many moviegoers shared his skepticism, incredulous that the men managed to capture many pivotal plot moments on camera and that they were so easily duped by the family they were investigating.
“You’re telling me that a pair of young filmmakers…would never think to google their mysterious subjects over a span of several months?” griped journalist Kyle Buchanan. But film subject and catfish victim Nev Schulman maintains his gullibility, claiming the movie’s events unfolded as shown, with the exception of certain re-created screenshots. “I was unbelievably self-convincing,” Schulman told New York magazine.
A few years earlier, debunkers of YouTube sensation lonelygirl15 refused to be convinced. In 2006, 16-year-old video blogger Bree Avery amassed thousands of followers by pairing mundane footage of her life with typical teenage musings. But when fans on the lonelygirl15.com message forum started comparing inconsistencies in the videos, the catfish was out of the bag: Bree was 19-year-old actor Jessica Rose, backed by Hollywood powerhouse Creative Artists Agency. The series continued after this revelation, but in August 2007 Bree was killed off on her own show.
The 1940 Jimmy Stewart classic The Shop Around the Corner got a modern makeover with the internet-era romance You’ve Got Mail. In both movies, two bitter professional rivals are unaware that they are actually falling in love with each other through their anonymous pen-pal correspondence. In You’ve Got Mail, protagonists Joe and Kathleen (Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan), trade the postal service of the earlier film for emails and instant messaging. Joe is first to discover that his cybercrush is really Kathleen, and even after they forge a friendship in person, he continues to mask his identity online as NY152. But since this is a romantic comedy, Joe can rest easy at film’s end; his revelation to Kathleen that he and NY152 are one and the same leads to a kiss rather than a restraining order.
Participants on Catfish: The TV Show aren’t as quick to forgive their significant others, who nearly always lie to them about everything from their age to their appearance and even their gender—not to mention how many other people they’re catfishing for sport. Few of the couples featured on the show remain romantically involved after they meet in person.
The Nigerian scam is the most well-known “advance fee fraud” email designed to part fools from their money. Using subject lines such as “Your assistance is needed,” extortionists spin a soap opera–like yarn about needing their target’s help to access millions of unclaimed dollars abandoned by a dethroned Nigerian prince, a foreigner without heirs who has died in a plane crash or similarly unlucky rich people. In exchange for a wire transfer to the scammer, the victim is promised a large percentage of the fortune that—shockingly—never materializes.
A widespread assumption implies these emails are so ludicrous that very few recipients take the bait. This is true—but it’s also why the scam persists. Since thousands of emails are dispatched daily at no cost to the perpetrator, even a handful of successes with only the most gullible targets makes the venture worthwhile to scammers.
The ubiquity of Facebook and online personal profiles has created an even bigger playground for extortionists, who can use stolen password information to hack into someone’s account and post fraudulent messages as that person. Typically they pretend to be in an emergency situation abroad and request money from the victim’s friends and family.
From the defrauded victims’ standpoint, possibly the only thing worse than a shakedown from a con artist living halfway around the world is being manipulated by someone they know—or thought they did. Friends and family of 23-year-old Canadian Ashley Kirilow were horrified to discover in 2010 that she had spent the previous two years lying about having various forms of cancer. She had raised and spent almost $20,000 through her charity, Change for the Cure, which was nothing more than a Facebook front.
After having a benign lump removed from her breast in 2008, Kirilow faked the effects of chemotherapy by shaving her head and plucking her eyebrows and eyelashes. She pocketed the profits from benefits held in her honor by members of the Toronto music and skateboarding communities. Kirilow later claimed to have raised only about $5,000, but her family speculates that one skateboarding event alone raised $9,000.
In August 2010 Kirilow’s father turned her in. Quotes in the Toronto Star from other relatives suggested that, like many catfish who seek fulfillment through fantasy, Kirilow had a history of deceiving people. According to her grandmother, “You couldn’t trust anything she was saying.”
When the Manti Te’o hoax broke, the sports media seemed as deflated over their golden goose getting duped as Te’o himself did—and for good reason. The incredible story of a grieving Heisman Trophy candidate’s inspiration by loss was just that, a story. No longer could Sports Illustrated breathlessly report that Te’o spent hours on the phone with girlfriend Lennay Kekua while she lay comatose in a hospital bed. ESPN’s reflections on Notre Dame’s 20–3 upset over Michigan State, days after Kekua’s “death,” were now a good deal sillier, and CBS This Morning had to admit its folly after juxtaposing a “quote” from Kekua with a photo of the woman whose images had been stolen to create her myth.
And what about the fans? Moved by a video of Te’o dejectedly holding his head in his hands after Notre Dame’s championship loss against Alabama on January 7, 2013, university alumnus Dan Tudesco began collecting money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in Kekua’s honor. Tudesco and three friends opened a page on charity site Indiegogo and received more than $4,000 in donations. As Ashley Kirilow’s misinformed cancer-charity donors had been, Tudesco was “shell-shocked” when he learned the truth.
“The entire workforce of the state of Virginia had to have solitaire removed from their computers—because they hadn’t done any work in six weeks,” reports Frank, a proud Luddite, to Kathleen in You’ve Got Mail. “You know what this is, what we’re seeing here? We’re seeing the end of Western civilization as we know it.” Despite Kathleen’s love of email, one of the film’s primary themes is mistrust of technology and big business. Several characters voice their befuddlement about the internet and rail against a chain store that has arrived in their Manhattan neighborhood to threaten the existence of Kathleen’s independent bookstore.
Fifteen years after the film’s release, companies still struggle to keep up with the breakneck pace of technology while doing damage control on its repercussions. Privacy disputes within social-sharing behemoths like Facebook and Instagram have caused users to question their memberships, as they grow weary of wondering who is tracking their personal data and to what end. Security breaches in banking websites, government databases and corporate Twitter accounts keep even the most vigilant among us on our toes—the metaphorical result, not coincidentally, of the scammers called catfish.