Paula Gibson and Anna Zwettler uncover the bleak reality of online impersonation
“Should we really do this?” we wondered, as we entered made up details about our lives on the dating app Hinge. Well, they weren’t quite about our lives. After all, neither of us were born in New York City or had ever received a wheel of cheese as a gift. Instead, these things apply to Maria, a 25-year-old student based in Amsterdam. She’s attractive, charismatic, opinionated and a little edgy. There’s only one catch: She’s not real. We made her up.
It’s not every day that you scroll through a stock image website to look for sets of pictures of a person you don’t know to make a believable dating app profile. We did this as part of an experiment to prove that cheating the system is concerningly easy. Within a few minutes, we were able to set up accounts on both OkCupid and Hinge. Matches started pouring in almost instantly, with messages such as “gurl who leaves new york?” or “hola guapa, how’s ur week going?” flooding our inbox.
We didn’t answer many of them and only sent one or two messages in return, if that. We’d already confirmed our hunch that online platforms have only feeble security measures in place to prevent impersonation and deceit. The last thing we wanted to do was take things too far.
Online dating has become the primary method for meeting potential life partners or casual dates, and it’s no longer seen as the last resort for desperate singles looking for love. Today, swiping on dating apps has gained popularity among younger and older audiences from all over the world, with many appreciating the efficiency and approachability that is offered. A report by apps news platform Business of Apps found that almost 330 million users were active in the online dating scene worldwide, with Tinder being the most popular one in the US and the UK.
A match too good to be true
When digital nomad Chloè-Marie Mignon was active on Tinder herself, she didn’t think that “catfishing” was very widespread. That was until she, herself, fell for an intricately thought out online impersonation scheme. Mignon, who is based in North Yorkshire, spent just under two months cultivating a friendship and connection with a man who she’d matched with at the end of last year. They texted everyday and she even spoke to him on the phone, thinking nothing of it for weeks. She grew suspicious when she came across a second, identical copy of his profile on the dating app.
“I knew that one of them must have been fake,” Mignon explains. “I didn’t know which one so I questioned both profiles, and I got blocked by both of them.” Growing wearier still, this motivated her to try to identify who exactly she’d been talking to.
Despite the many success stories of lifelong partners whose connection started with a single swipe, the anonymity of the internet provides the space for lies on dating apps: According to the Pew Research Center, up to 54% of users have come across others who misrepresented themselves online. This ranges from casual intentions, such as sharing an outdated photo, to downright impersonation, like pretending to be someone else entirely – a practice which has now been largely labeled as catfishing.
Remembering that she and her catfish shared a mutual friend, Mignon approached her in the hopes of getting a lead. The two women found out that they’d fallen into the very same person’s trap after comparing experiences and the snapchat accounts of the man they’d spoken to. Mignon also spread the word on social media, cross referencing stories with fellow victims in her area. She discovered that they’d all been dealing with a serial catfish who had misled around 25 other women.
This is not at all uncommon, since many catfish seek out several victims at once. As 64% are women, men are almost 25% more likely to fall for online impersonators, as stated in reports by Free Background Checks and Metro.
“This is where the plot thickens,” Mignon says in the TikTok storytime where she shared her experience. She couldn’t have guessed that the man she’d matched with was not only pretending to be another person but also another gender: “It turns out that it’s an actual female, it’s not a guy. She has gender [confusion]. She thinks that she’s lonely and has to pose as other people to have conversations with women.” What’s worse is all the information she had collected from her many victims, such as phone numbers, addresses and sexually explicit content.
Mignon didn’t bother going to the police, as the catfish had kept all activities within the perimeter of the law: “Unfortunately for us victims, it’s more hassle than gain because we’re not going to get anything out of it. We can’t stop her.”
Are dating apps doing enough?
The gloomy reality is that online impersonators cannot be prosecuted unless there is visual and measurable proof of fraud, in addition to the creation of a fake profile. As quantifying psychological damage is not easy, victims often find themselves without the closure that a court proceeding could provide. Dating apps are also immune to legal liability, which explains why little is often done to decrease the number of catfish active on the platforms. After all, Hinge and OkCupid didn’t even flag our account, despite “Maria’s” photos that we took from an openly accessible stock picture website.
Steps toward increasing transparency among its users have been taken by Tinder and Bumble, who introduced a preventative “verification check”, which allows people to confirm their identity by taking a profile picture in real time. However, as this is not mandatory, its success rate at lowering catfishing rates remains questionable. While other dating apps have shared guidelines on how to avoid deception and scams, these posts are not largely advertised on their home pages.
“These apps don’t think about catfishing. They were designed to be an addicting game.”
It seems that these “safe dating” tips are shared as a courtesy for the few users who bother scrolling through the fineprint. Fact is that there is little motivation from companies to spread awareness on the risks. According to Zach Schleien, CEO and co-founder of the video-first dating app Filteroff, the issue lies in the habitual nature of swiping: “These apps don’t think about catfishing. They were designed to be an addicting game.”
Filteroff has tried to drastically reduce impersonation by requiring users to go on a number of short video dates before choosing who they’d like to talk to further. “When you go on a video chat with someone and they lied about their photos on Filteroff, you’ll see instantly,” Schleien continues, sharing that only in rare cases accounts are reported for deception. “If there’s something that you’re uncomfortable with, show it. Because why would you want to start your connection with a lie? It still baffles me to this day.”
Catfishing as the ultimate escape
Many people create fake personas due to low self worth or a wish to temporarily escape from their identities. “A lot of it just stems from self-esteem [problems] and not really feeling good about yourself,” therapist and catfishing victim Rebecca Gibson confirms.
This was the case for 26-year-old Cecelia Thompson* who had a brief run as a catfish back in high school. In 2009, being an “emo boy” in Kentucky was all the rage and so was chatting to people online. “I was obsessed with the internet. I was on MySpace all the time and I was introverted,” explains Thompson, who desperately wanted to befriend people from her school. After choosing some pictures of guys with long hair, eyeliner and piercings from Google, she set up a fake profile to get to know her classmates. Rather than doing it for malicious reasons, Thompson was both insecure and simply curious.
“It’s wanting to be someone else because you don’t think that you are good enough,” she concludes. Though she doesn’t regret her actions in hindsight, she does now question why she’d felt the need to lie.
In some instances, catfish are also in it for the money. Some professionals manipulate their victims for weeks before successfully scamming them out of thousands to help pay for a made up “emergency”. According to research by the Federal Trade Commission, Americans reported losses of 304 million dollars in 2020 alone, with corona-induced loneliness likely to blame. However, in some cases, gaining freedom of speech without the repercussions is what the catfish is after.
In March 2018, audience editor Max Benwell started receiving messages from women he didn’t know. They claimed that someone based in Oklahoma City had stolen his pictures and set up profiles on Facebook and Instagram under a fake name to write insulting things to the women he’d been talking to. Though Benwell never felt particularly aggrieved, he still wanted his impersonator to own up to what they did: “I decided to track [the catfish] down and talk to them because I knew that that would probably be way more effective.” He didn’t feel that simply getting the account taken down was drastic enough.
After a series of events – from setting up a “slightly pervy” Instagram entitled “Gorgeous Ladies of Oklahoma” to working with the online dating investigation service Social Catfish – Benwell was left with the name, personal accounts and phone number of the man who’d stolen his pictures. “I was so nervous before phoning him because I felt like it was so likely that he was gonna hang up almost immediately,” Benwell says, clarifying that he’d really tried to seem non-confrontational.
He never got a confession, even though he spoke to the catfish for an hour. Benwell does believe that he got through to him, however, as the man acknowledged the severity of sending hateful messages toward the end of their conversation: “I don’t want to psychoanalyze him, really, but to me, he’s clearly a lonely person and he does these things as a sort of game.”
While Mignon spread the word on TikTok, Benwell wrote an article of his thrilling tale for the Guardian. We asked him what he would do if he ever found himself in the same situation again – where a catfish stole his photos to say mean things to women. He says he’d try to talk some sense into them again, as well as use his past experience to his advantage: “I’d probably send them the piece I wrote as a kind of warning shot,” Benwell explains, laughing. “Like, ‘do you want to be in the sequel?’”
Dating without deception?
Since it is unlikely that large strides toward a catfishing-free world will be made any time soon, it is vital that people learn digital literacy to help them safely navigate the internet and critically question the intent of the people they come across. As Benwell sees it, this especially applies to both younger and older generations: “If you go to Gen Z, the internet’s all they know and it’s all very real to them, so they’re not as cynical and suspicious as they should be. And then the older generations, it’s all new to them, so they’re a bit gullible.”
As long as impersonation is not considered an illegal practice under constitutional law in many countries, it’s likely that catfishing will continue to increase in the coming years. According to Gibson, if the system doesn’t change neither will the numbers of fake profiles online: “So long as people can put on a mask and have the anonymity of the internet, there’s going to be people pretending to be people they aren’t.”
*Name followed by an asterisk has been changed for privacy reasons at the request of the source.