How to spot a catfish scam




Spotting a catfish scam is not as easy as spotting a Nigerian Prince scam. For one, while the Nigerian prince shows his cards early by asking for a large cash sum up front, a “Catfish” may never ask for a big payday. But the two types of scams have some common threads: They are both exercises in social engineering, generally it’s the scammer who initiates contact, and you will not be able to easily verify the identity of either catfish or the Prince.


For those who fall for the catfish’s or the Prince’s lines however there is real damage. In one case the perp breaks your bank. The other? They break your heart. One of these is easier to fix than the other.


Here are some questions you can and should ask yourself about any new online friend:


Did a stranger contact you?

Take “stranger” here very seriously. If someone is trying to start up a catfish scam then they will necessarily be a complete stranger. You cannot know this person. They do not and never have existed. They are not a friend of a friend. They were not tagged in the same photo as you. They were not included in the same #FF cloud. You have absolutely no knowledge of them whatsoever. If there is absolutely no history between you and this person then you should engage with caution.


Remember; if you reply then you have already demonstrated that you are a person willing to trust a stranger by replying. This gives the scammer a green light to push the limits of your trust.

Are they a model?

If you’re a talent agent or photographer this might be common place, but otherwise a model reaching out to you from nowhere should send off a red flag. This isn’t to say models don’t socialize or have friends like the rest of us, but think about question one. Are they a stranger? Models receive a lot of attention. Why are they emailing random strangers?


A more down to heart reason why you should be suspect of your new model friend:  models have a lot of photos on the web, professional and candid. They make a living being in pictures. They are easy targets for people looking to steal their persona because there’s a virtual never ending supply of images with which to populate fake social profiles. It’s safe to say that anyone who has modeled professionally or as a hobby has probably had an image stolen at least once.


Can they send you a picture easily?

This one may be a bit dated, but it’s still relevant. Nowadays you’ll most likely be connecting through a social network jam packed with galleries. But if you’re on an Internet dating site you still may have to ask someone for a picture.


If the person fumbles around trying to find a picture or claims they have to go get one taken then they may be buying time. In 2013 most people have at least one digital photograph of themselves on hand. They could be using that time to hunt down the perfect identity to steal off Facebook.


Do you know what EXIF Data is?

The average Internet user isn’t familiar with Exchangeable image file format (EXIF) data. But EXIF can be a powerful weapon in detecting fraud. In short, EXIF is meta-data embedded in common image file types which can provide, among other things, the GPS location the photo was taken, the date the image originated, if the photo has been edited (to remove a model’s watermark perhaps?) and other interesting information.


Let’s say that a stranger contacts you and, after some fumbling, sends you a gorgeous stunning photo and claims they are a model. Maybe you want to check the EXIF data to see the photo’s history. You don’t need fancy hacker software. Just go to and either upload the photo or input the photo’s web URL.




What happens when you put that picture in TinEye?

There is a simple way to clear EXIF data that comes packaged with every Windows PC on the planet (we won’t help out Catfish scammers by sharing that info here, though). Also, it’s not uncommon for people to edit images to show off their best traits these days and most image editors will recompress a file and replace the original EXIF with a history of edits. You clearly need a second way to verify that the gorgeous photo you received actually belongs to the person with whom you are communicating.


Thankfully sites like TinEye and services like Google Goggles allow for reverse image searches. If you drop that stunning photo into either service you may find surprising results. If the picture is highly proliferated, if there are watermarked versions available or if the image can be traced to an origin or person different than what you were told then stop all communication- you’re being lied to.


Do they have a facebook?

It’d be a bit much to expect everyone out there to have a Facebook, however it is one of the most popular websites on the Internet. Someone who enjoys contacting strangers who doesn’t have a social network profile should set off an alarm.


When did they register their account?

Almost every social network lets you check out how long someone’s been a member. If someone has created a fake account just for the purpose of misleading you then can easily tell how long ago they registered it. If they have an account that’s just a few weeks old but it’s loaded with a lifetime of pictures that should be a red flag.


Given the nature of Catfish Scammers they may suggest they had to delete or stop using their old profile because their life was in danger or because something traumatic happened.


Are their friends tagged in their facebook photos?

This is another simple “Tell” for scammers. If they have photos with groups of friends that have no comments and not tags then they probably stole the images and could not tag the people in it.


Do they have a twitter?

Again, not having a Twitter isn’t alarming. But Twitter is simply another resource to verify your new friend’s identity. Things to look for include: the type of tweets they make, how often they’ve uploaded pictures. In general- does it look genuine?


When was their first tweet?

If their first tweet was the day you met them then the Twitter account was most likely created for your benefit. Further, if they have no friends, no local friends, or seemingly random friends you might want to consider that you’re looking at a hoax account.


Why are you talking to their whole family?

Many who fall victim to Catfish scams mention that they have had conversations with a cast of characters. Brothers, sisters, cousins, best friends and parents all seem to want to be your friend! Ask yourself, how often do you communicate with your online friend’s extended families?


These characters are usually all created and played by the scammer both to add “legitimacy” to the person they invented and to keep channels open in the likely event the fake person they invented gets sick, goes into hiding, or dies.




Why won’t they chat via webcam?

Not everyone is comfortable with Web Cams. But if they are continually agreeing to chat via video and always finding excuses it may be because they are hiding their true identity. Remember, the scammer is trying to keep you on the emotional line as long as possible. Anything that keeps you looking “Forward” to something is good for them and bad for you.


Have you ever met them?

This should be a no brainer- but it’s actually pretty complicated. The “meeting” is generally when the scam goes into overdrive and where your sympathy response will blind you to the obvious.


If you and your new friend decide to meet and on the eve of the big day a terrible tragedy strikes them then you should put your guard up. They get sick, or in an accident, are attacked or something dramatic happens. This triggers your sympathy mechanism and immediately you forgive them for missing the meet up date.


If the fictitious event is dramatic enough you will be contacted by a family member or friend who remains unusually chatty with you for the duration of the event. This is why they created these characters to begin with. You will be kept on the line via updates (which suddenly come as frequently from the family member or friend as they did from the person who is now sick or injured) until finally, and dramatically, the person returns.

If horrible things constantly happen when you two plan to meet up then you are being toyed with.


How much do they know about their illness?

Catfish scammers are rarely looking for money. Mostly, it seems, they want your affection or sympathy. The result is that these people, regrettably, claim to have terrible diseases such as cancer. Cancer is a very common choice among scammers because people are generally uncomfortable asking details and the “treatment” they claim to be undergoing can be drawn out over years.


If you’ve ever had to support a friend or family member receiving cancer treatments then you know they are very aware of, very involved in and very concerned about their treatment. If queries about the model-with-a-brand-new-facebook-profile-whom-you’ve-never-met-and-contacted-you-out-of-the-blue’s treatment are answered vaguely, and they don’t know their calendar for treatment months in advance then they could be lying.


Don’t watch “Catfish” – Watch “Night Listener”.




The film Catfish (2010) and the modern MTV reality show are often cited when referencing romance scams of this type. However, both are criticized as being meta-hoaxes- scripted and faked from the start!


To understand how deep something like a “Catfish” scam can run, turn instead to Robin Williams (very dark) drama Night Listener. It’s a dark and torturous story about how one man’s life and faith is tested by a clever phony. It not only deals with the impact that these “fake personas” have on people but delves into the gritty reality of how manipulative the lies can be, what drives a person to lie about who they are, and just how easy it is to want to believe.


Warning: Night Listener is dark. But so is this subject.