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Fish Out of Water

An Introduction to the Newest Trend in Identity Theft

Let’s try to have some compassion; identity thieves are people, too. True, they’re often looking to steal your money, use your health insurance, gain employment or start a new small business with your name and SSN. But sometimes, they’re just looking to fall in love.

At least that’s the basis of the term “catfish”—made popular by the recent Manti Te’o scandal, but first hitting the media in the 2010 documentary aptly titled, Catfish.

Catfish, Kind of Like Catfish

(Spoiler Alert)

The plot of Catfish seems simple: A couple falls in love online and spends countless hours talking on the phone. But as the lies unravel, things get complicated. By creating a fake Facebook profile and network of friends, the woman has tricked our protagonist into falling in love with a façade.

The film ends unexpectedly with the woman’s husband recounting a tall tale about the sea-dwelling catfish’s role in the transportation of cod from Alaska to China. In this ironic moment, the husband drawls a metaphorical explanation of his wife’s odd and manipulative behavior as a catfish.

And thus the term “catfish” was born.

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Catfish: – noun |Kat – Fi – SH|

A person who steals someone’s social media identity to create a fake persona—complete with a fully-functioning Facebook profile and a masterful masquerade of family members, friends and coworkers—with the end goal of seducing a partner into a long-term online relationship.

Sadly, every catfish has a catfishee—the person that fell in love with the façade.

The MTV show of the same name features a new lovelorn protagonist every week who is seeking to meet his/her long-distance lover. Almost every episode ends with a catfish exposed. As the season continues it becomes clear: there seems to be a lot of catfish out there.

Another Way to Say “Identity Thief”

Although the footage is entertaining, the facts are alarming. A catfish is just another kind of identity thief, and these thieves can steal personal information and photos from multiple victims to not only create a fake Facebook profile, but also a fake Facebook network of fake friends with fake profiles consisting of more stolen (i.e. fake) photos.

True, merely tricking someone into falling in love, although emotionally tolling, is relatively harmless. But what if an identity thief uses the fake profile to gain employment or scam people into giving money or more information? The consequences could be devastating.

As the term and trend gain popularity, it’s likely that catfishing may become a more common form of identity theft. So it’s smart to take some proactive steps. This unique crime requires that you protect yourself from both being catfished and having your identity stolen for the use of a catfish.

There Are Other Fish in the Sea

Tips to Avoid Being Catfished:

  1. Use your webcam
    If you meet someone online, take advantage of video chat at the beginning of your interactions. There are several free options including Skype and Google Plus. If computer technology is a problem, set up a time where you can both be at a library or Kinkos with web camera capabilities. If your significant other makes excuses, you should consider this a red flag.

  2. Save it for the first date
    Although things might seem intimate at first, be weary of getting too close too fast. Until you meet your new love interest in person, do not give out any personal information that could be used for identity theft.

  3. Do your research
    There are plenty of ways to find out more information about your cyber sweetheart. Start by doing a simple online search of his/her name and city. There are also sites that offer free background checks. If you can’t dig up any information, research the validity of some of your partner’s closest social media friends. Consider even reaching out to those friends directly to get a personal reference.

Tips to Avoid Becoming a Catfish Resource Center:

  1. Set up a Google alert for your name
    An easy, proactive way to ensure your social media profiles aren’t being duplicated is to set up a Google Alert for your name. If someone creates a fully functioning profile with your name, you will get an alert.

  2. Reverse photo search
    Set up a calendar or phone alert to remind yourself to do periodic reverse photo searches. Just drag your profile photo into the search bar, and Google will search for matches to this photo. This is a great way to find out if someone is using your profile picture for his/her own account.

  3. Photo Privacy settings
    Make sure all of your photos online are set to private. That includes Facebook, Google Plus and Twitter. Many photo storage sites like Flickr can be easily viewed by the public if not set up properly so check the settings on those accounts, too.

As always, caution is key when it comes to security. 

Federal Trade Commission. “Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book For
January – December 2011.” February 2012.

Javelin Strategy & Research. "2012 Identity Fraud Report: Social Media and Mobile Forming
the New Fraud Frontier." February 2012.

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