So far in my Digital Deception series I’ve encountered phonies who used their fake identities to promote their products or business, to trash their competitors, to catch criminals or spy on ideological enemies, to spread propaganda or to enhance their reputation. What about those who use fake identities to make romantic connections, either real or online/fantasy?
I think we probably all expect a little creative license in the profiles we see on dating sites. Maybe they’ve added a couple inches of height, underestimated their weight by a dozen or so pounds, lopped a decade or two off their age, or maybe just forgot to mention that not a single hair has grown on their head for a good 10 years now. (A friend of mine writes a blog Not So Smitten with some pretty funny stories about what she found when she came face to face with some online dates.) But these are just sort of the little white lies of dating sites. There are a lot worse.
The term catfish is a pretty appropriate one. If you go to a restaurant and order say Cajun Crusted Fried Catfish you may get a pretty nice looking plate. If you look at the creature your meal was derived from you see a butt-ugly bottom feeder, the human version of which is what you’ll likely find behind a fake dating site profile. I like to turn to the Urban Dictionary for colorful definitions of terms like this. One of the authors demonstrated how to use catfish as a verb: “Did you hear how Dave got catfished last month? The fox he thought he was talking to turned out to be a pervy guy from San Diego.”
Catfish as a moniker for online date phonies can be traced back to a 2010 documentary movie of that name which follows 20-something Nev Schulman as he was in fact smitten by a 19-year old singer dancer who instead turned out to be a 40-year old Michigan housewife. Schulman followed that up with an MTV show by the same name in which he and a partner expose catfish.
One very high profile catfish incident is the curious case of Manti Te’o. Te’o was a football player at Notre Dame and during the 2012 season he very publicly disclosed that he had been playing with the burden of mourning for his girlfriend Lennay Kekua who had passed away from leukemia in September of that year. Turns out, however, that Te’o never met Kekua and that she was in fact the creation of a man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who apparently was an acquaintance of Te’o. The whole story was headline news on the sports pages and on ESPN for weeks.
What motivates the creators of catfish? In a story last year in the U.K. Daily Mail, author Hayley Peterson suggests “the fabricated life stories and photographs that they cobble together online often contain the experiences, friends, resumes and job titles they wish they had.”
Some are more sinister than that. Catfish may represent more than a bad date, they may be thieves, con artists or stalkers. A story in the Guardian from 2011 estimated that 200,000 Brits had been tricked into turning over some money or bank account details through connections they made on online date sites. The usual pattern is the catfish spends some time developing a relationship online then asks for money to deal with some financial hardship or family illness.
The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command issued a warning about scammers on online dating sites who claim to be soldiers in Afghanistan. They initiate a relationship and then at some point ask for money for transportation or medical supplies.
Digital Trends carried a story in January of this year about a 66-year old divorced woman in San Jose who was scammed out of $300,000. She met a guy on the dating site Christian Mingle who claimed to be an Irishman working on an oil rig. He was really in Nigeria. He sent flowers, he made phone calls and then he asked for help with his daughter’s tuition. And then he asked for money for his oil rig business which the victim raised by withdrawing from her retirement account and refinancing her home.
Not all of the frauds are coming from the users of online dating sites. A story in the Telegraph of London from July of last year describes how some online dating services use stolen data to create fake profiles as a way to attract customers. The author, Hayley Dixon, quotes a former employee of Global Personals who acknowledges creating fake profiles.
Almost incredulously I found a site where at the click of a button you can create a false identity. www.fakenamegenerator.com asks the gender and country you want to use and then generates a full fake profile with name, address, age and email address as well as details like mother’s maiden name and blood type. You can also use their Sims Family Generator and create as entire fake family. (Tech developers are not always up to snuff on their ethics.) The site is free and supported by advertising. I found ads for Hitachi, Target and Renaissance Hotels. Those companies are undoubtedly using automated ad networks and have no idea their ads are being placed on a site like this.
I also found a site where you can buy online dating profiles. www.usdate.org offers 10,000 profiles for $18. Not much of a barrier to enter the online dating business. In the story in the Telegraph it is reported that the BBC bought 10,000 profiles from usdate and in those profiles found photos of Brad Pitt and Michael Caine.
DISCLOSURE – I’m way too old to have had extensive experience with online dating sites. My generation used bars. It was harder to manipulate your appearance in a bar, even a dark one, although we often suspected the guy who never took his baseball cap off might be balding. The unattractive often relied on the beer goggle effect. We still created fake profiles but they usually took the form of bullshitting about having a job or offering an enhanced view of your high school sports prowess.