Man is by nature a social animal. Leave them to a life of solitude and loneliness and most would lose sanity. We need to talk to others, listen to others, talk about others, or just be a part of a larger group. In short, we need to be connected to humans. There was a time when being social essentially was a matter of physical proximity. The world was a simpler one then. Now, with the world shrinking to fit inside our communication devices, physical presence has been replaced by virtual presence. With the advent of social media, we now have more friends than ever before, strangers follow each other on social media based on broad interests, and humans have become more of a performance of themselves than a true representation of who they are.
Much as this virtual reality helps introverts open up as they can now talk without having to face an audience, it also shrouds identities behind a secure veil – one that permits obscurity and anonymity even while encouraging closer connection. People can talk about their deepest secrets, fears and insecurities with others they see as peers but hardly know, which can expose them to fraud. Humans have been faking identities to serve personal interests since the beginning of society. But the virtual screen has made it easier for bad actors to exploit vulnerable people to dangerous extremes.
The documentary film Catfish, released in 2010, brought people to the realization that they could be in danger online. It was easy to see that anyone could have been a victim of catfishing, though consequences varied. Catfishing means creating fake personas, usually online, to form a relationship for some ulterior motive. The most harmless motive for catfishing is just having fun. Though that option is disturbing when reflecting on how catfishing can hurt others, there are far worse reasons. Some catfishers do it to manipulate, physically or emotionally harm, or fraudulently extract money from victims. The more technologically savvy we become, the more exposed we are to being catfished. In online relationships, caution is always advised.
Here are 15 tips on how to avoid being catfished:
- Be careful
When you suddenly get a friend request from somebody you don’t know, be careful. Cross-check with your friends to find out if any of them know such a person. Unless you are extremely curious and intrigued about the person, it is best not to accept the request or not to respond to such an invite. Remember, it is better to be safe than sorry.
- Search for them on other platforms
Generally, social people have their profiles on various platforms. If you get an invite from an unknown name without any mutual friends, it might be a good idea to look for the same name on other social platforms. If they are fake, they are more likely not to have accounts elsewhere. Search thoroughly before accepting a request.
- Check the profile carefully
If you get an invite, check the profile thoroughly. Pay attention to not just the name and other details but also pictures, posts, friends, and interests. Most fake profiles are created a few days or weeks ahead of the friend request and generally have only a handful of the above content. These accounts might be using someone else’s photograph and only about one or two friends, who may also be fake profiles.
- Ask your friends to help you vet them
Ask your existing friends on social media to search for the person and send requests. During initial interactions with the stranger, keep talking about your friends and ask the new person to accept their requests. This way, you and your friends can corroborate the details and activities of this new person. If they hesitate to interact with your friends, there may be something fishy going on. Beware.
- Verify phone numbers
If the person interacts with you over some social chat site, try to get their phone number. Ask for a more personal medium of communication like WhatsApp or simple texting. Today, social platforms verify identities via phone numbers given only to users with valid identity proofs. A disingenuous person may try to avoid giving a personal number, or give you a fake number routed through a call-center or similar. Try using apps like True Caller to validate such numbers.
- Have conversations on the phone
Having a phone conversation is a great way to establish whether certain facts a new connection has told you are true. A person who is trying to fake an identity might not be comfortable talking on the phone. More often than not, these people will ask you not to call by giving excuses like they have strict rules at the workplace or network issues. If you do get them on the phone, their call might come from a spoofed number or, if you call multiple times, from different numbers each time. You can also identify fishy situations by the way they sound (accent, pitch, fluency) and whether they are open and easy to talk to.
- Do video calls
One of the best methods to validate if a person is faking is to have video calls. Deceitful contacts will avoid making video calls as they might not want to show their face. If someone is faking a gender, for example, it will be difficult for them to pull off a video chat without exposing themselves. Modified profiles can fake their name, nationality, gender and even age. Video chat makes it very inconvenient to maintain such lies. Beware as well of “technical difficulties” on video chat, such as a static or looping image rather than live video.
- Do not share personal information
You might want to share personal thoughts, but always remember not to share personal information unless absolutely necessary. If you have to share, do it only with people you know and have physically met and those whose motivation you fully understand. Your personal information should be available only to you, your family, and a few trusted friends. It is not public information and if acquired can be misused for various illegal activities. Your social security number, passport, and other details should never be shared with someone you have met only through social media.
- Never share financial details or give money
Your money is perhaps one of the biggest targets of catfishing. Do not give money to or participate in financial transactions with anybody reaching out randomly to you. Treat calls asking you to donate or offering gifts on behalf of your credit card with suspicion; they may be after your financial details or your bank accounts. Remember, your money is safe as long as you are careful about keeping it safe!
- Meet in person
One of the best ways to validate if a person is genuine or trying to catfish you is to physically meet the person. If possible based on your locations, try to set up a personal meeting quickly. The longer you delay the process, the higher the chances that you might start to trust the person who could, in reality, be fake. There is nothing more revealing than a meeting in person. However, make sure you do not meet in a private apartment or home. You could try to meet in a group or a public setting where there are many others around.
- Stick to guaranteed and certified social media platforms
The world is getting smaller and social platforms and chat services are filling up the virtual gaps. Everybody wants to make friends, some like to date, some like to share their feelings or thoughts virtually. There’s no harm in these pursuits, just ensure that the platform you are using to interact is secure and among the more widely accepted ones where you can have other known people and your friends as well. Chat services like WhatsApp, Yahoo, GTalk, Paltalk, and others use secure platforms and come at a cost. No matter how lucrative a free service might appear, it is always more secure to use guaranteed services, even if they include some payment.
- Set expectations
All relationships have their expectations. When you start chatting with someone who seems to be like you or thinks along the same lines as you, it is necessary to set expectations. If someone genuinely wants to be your friend, then there should be no trouble doing this as it helps maintain a healthy relationship. If you see the person is trying to breach the lines or expecting more of you than you can give, it should be an alarm for you to start asking questions. You are your own guardian in such a situation, and it is up to you to carefully manoeuvre through such pitfalls. Setting expectations can help you be careful of fraud and harmful intent.
- Keep your firewall and information updated
An updated device with appropriate firewalls and accurate information about catfishing can save you from becoming a victim. It is easy to use a smart device but it is easier to be carried away by emotions. Remember, your emotions are what makes you vulnerable, but not if you are updated and educated about the various methods that nefarious people adopt to cheat or exploit others. Spend some money to protect your device and practice awareness to catch any unfamiliar or abnormal behaviors. Together these can act as your personal firewall.
- Trust your intuition
There is no bigger preventive measure than your intuition. Desiring friends or admirers and being able to share things that you might otherwise not is completely normal. Your social self might be ready to take on new friends, but before taking the leap, check with your internal guardian (i.e. your intuition) at least once. More often than not, your intuitions will be correct, so if your gut says there is something fishy, trust it. There is no harm in testing or validating. Just do it gently, oractual well-meaning relations might get messed up. Trust yourself and act wisely.
- Be logical
Last but not least, be logical. Think about what is possible and what is not. If someone is showing unnecessary keenness and flexibility, stop and think if you would have done the same in a similar situation or if it is at all logically possible. Look for the 5 W’s: who, what, when, why, and how. This might be a management principle, but management is based on human relationships, too. Being logical does not however mean being cynical, so pair logic with intuition and you might just be able to save yourself from being emotionally, physically, socially or financially exploited.
What Paltalk can do to help you avoid being catfished?
While it is up to you to be safe and careful, certified services can help you by offering the security that you need as a backup. Most common and widely used services and platforms like Paltalk offer features that can help prevent you from being catfished.
Video calling options – The chatrooms all offer video chat services, so if you feel that someone is avoiding being on a video chat, you can immediately switch on your alarm button and be more careful about who you are befriending.
Multiple interest groups and chat rooms – Services that provide more options in terms of people and chat rooms are generally avoided by people with bad intentions. Also, since a large number of people are logged in to these services, troublemakers try to steer clear of such platforms.
Secured environment – A secure environment that requires users to validate their identity before granting permission to use the services adds a double layer of security. These services mostly work only with other certified and safe third-party services, for whom the same degree of authentication is necessary.
Paid service – Being a paid service, such online platforms are usually less accessible to fraudulent people. The services reserve the right to block any user if they are found to use the services unlawfully or for personal interests which conflict with those of the provider. The services cannot be used for monetary transactions between users, unless specifically stated, further blocking financial fraud.
Canadian American psychologist Paul Bloom once said, “Humans are social beings, and we are happier, and better when connected to others.” Shed your inhibitions and make new friends, because companionship is a great asset that helps us grow into good human beings. While services and platforms can help you to reach out to people and explore the world, always remember to use your discretion. Catfishing might be common, but as mature, educated, tech-savvy individuals, it is your duty to be vigilant and your right to explore the virtual world in a safe and secure environment.