Meet “Michael”: a 23-year-old student who like many young people, spends a
lot of time on the internet. As a teenager Michael became a victim of the recent
phenomenon known as catfishing.
In 2007 Michael received a friend request from a woman named “Shay Cross” on the then-popular social network, Hi5, a website much like Facebook.
He says he couldn’t remember meeting Shay, but that the only friend they had in common was his recent ex-girlfriend. He reluctantly accepted the request saying he thought it would be rude to ignore it.
After exchanging a few messages and realizing they had a few more mutual friends and interests, Michael insisted they meet in person.
Shay dodged most of Michael’s attempts to meet in person, until she answered a phone call.
Michael says the voice on the other end of the phone sounded as if it was being faked.
He says this was when he first started doubting who Shay said she was.
"Sometimes it could be the thrill of becoming someone else."
-Alison Fosbery, psychotherapist
She eventually asked Michael to meet at a nearby subway station, but after he sent a few messages and patiently waited for her, Shay never showed up.
“Excuse after excuse, Shay didn’t show up – so basically I got stood up, which was not surprising to me because I had already had my suspicions on this girl,” he says.
“At this point I knew something was up with ‘Shay’ so I started asking around to some of our mutual friends about some of the stuff we talked about,” Michael says.
He says that Shay mentioned that his ex girlfriend was in the hospital. Going to one of his ex’s friends, he asked, “Is Christina really in the hospital?”
He says they avoided the question, saying he needed to speak to her directly to find out.
Talking to Shay more and more, he says she always kept bringing up his ex girlfriend, adding that he didn’t even think they’d known each other that well.
That is until one day; when a mutual friend spilled the beans.
It was revealed to Michael that throughout the entire exchange, his ex-girlfriend Christina had pretended to be someone she wasn’t to see if he was talking to other girls, wanting to get back together with her, or feeling sorry for her.
Having his suspicions from the get go, Michael wasn’t too surprised with the outcome. However, he says he keeps his guard up when with interacting with anyone online these days.
Facebook to Plenty of Fish to Tinder at your fingertips, virtual dating has been on an upswing, making it easier to meet people on the other side of the screen. Like Michael, many have faced this same problem of misrepresentation in an online medium.
It’s become a lot easier to connect and meet people from just about anywhere, which could be a blessing or a curse for some. We never really know who is on the other side, and frankly, Michael’s story can happen to anyone.
According to Urbandictionary.com, the definition of “catfishing” is “the phenomenon of Internet predators that fabricate online identities and entire social circles to trick people into emotional/romantic relationships”. Basically, that 6 foot, blonde haired, blue-eyed lawyer who has been chatting you up on Plenty of Fish may look like the perfect match and what you’ve been searching for, but he could very well not even exist.
Nev Schulman, a New-York based producer, actor and photographer had exchanged hundreds of text messages and emails all while spending months learning everything he could about an online crush via social media profiles.
Schulman starred in the documentary Catfish in 2010. The film chronicles the events leading up to his meeting with a 40-year-old mother who had presented herself to be a 19-year-old model, singer and professional horseback rider. He then started a television series in 2012 called Catfish; helping others connect with the people they met online to make sure they weren’t being deceived.
However, there lies a deeper meaning behind the actions of those who pretend to be something they’re not.
Psychotherapist Alison Fosbery says self-esteem plays a big role in the act of the catfisher.
“Sometimes it could be the thrill of becoming someone else,” says Fosbery. Working closely counseling people of all ages, Fosbery explains, “Not being validated as a child could force them to look for that validation by being someone else.”
Along with self-esteem issues, psychotherapist Mariola Malasinski says people who pretend to be something they’re not usually are looking to gain something.
“A main thing people try to gain online is money” says Malasinski. “…people may try to make connections online and present themselves as something that their not for kind of a financial gain …and a sense of power.”
Catfishing is especially predominant in the dating industry. Shannon Tebb, a boutique matchmaker, dating consultant and life coach at shannyinthecity.com says she has seen just about everything with her clients.
“A woman that I know who is on a matchmaking site, Match.com, had a situation with a guy…from a smaller town. He eventually asked her for money. Although they met in person, it was a bit of a scam and he was just looking for cash,” says Tebb.
Catfishing doesn’t always require a fictional person; rather a presentation of someone you’re not. In this case, the person was very much real.
Shannon recommends professional matchmaking to avoid being scammed on the Internet.
“That’s the thing with online dating, you have to pretty much use it at your own discretion, whereas with matchmaking I screen every single client I sign, and if I feel uneasy about them, I don’t take them on,” she says.
She says there are simple steps that you can take to protect yourself from online predators. Some include doing your homework and trying to look at their story objectively if it seems too good to be true. Requests for money are also a red flag, and you should try to check their social media accounts to see if everything adds up.
The opportunity for online deception is widespread, and users of social media have to be every bit as vigilant as they are connected.