Online dating: How to avoid being “catfished”

Young woman reading a message on her phone

Falling in love can be intoxicating. Very intoxicating. The dopamine rush you feel with new love is similar to the rush that powerful stimulants can offer.

Who doesn’t want that feeling? That’s why when we’re falling in love, we can be vulnerable to being deceived, blinded by the invigorating feelings someone triggers in us.

It can be easy to fall prey to a so-called “catfishing” scheme, meaning the person you’ve connected with isn’t exactly who they claim to be. They’ve made up an identity and gone online to try to bait you into an online relationship. That identity is partially or entirely a lie. An unemployed man in his 60s living in Omaha poses as a 27-year-old architect and rock-climbing vegan living outside of Seattle.

Or a middle-aged divorced woman with four children working at a convenience store pretends to be a single never-married model in her mid-20s.

Know the signs of catfishing

Love can turn the volume down on your rational brain. Still, try to listen to it — as hard as it might be — to recognize the signs you might be involved in a hoax.

Evasiveness: The deceiver messages you on Instagram or Facebook or a dating site and knows exactly what to say. Before long, you’re in love. Only you’ve never met in person. When you say, “Hey, let’s meet up,” the schemer can’t quite make it this time or the next time you propose a meeting or the time after that. Car trouble. A flood in the basement. Their best friend died. They can’t get off work. They came down with COVID and don’t want to risk giving it to you. Their excuses can feel very real. And they make sense, especially when you’re in love.

Requests for money: Sometimes they ask for gas money or gift cards or a Venmo payment just to help cover their father’s hospital bills after a heart attack that has kept him from going to work. Of course you want to help. What’s $25?

Why do we fall for catfishing scams?

Anyone can get caught up in these scams. Don’t think you’re so smart, so discerning, such a good judge of character, that it can’t happen to you. We are all potentially vulnerable, but especially if we’re isolated from friends and family or really wanting to have a romantic connection with someone.

Damage from a catfishing scheme

When the gig is up and you discover who the person really is, the fallout can be significant, both emotionally and financially. It can make you depressed. Why did I let myself get caught up? Why would I think anyone would love me anyway? You might also have a lot of anxiety about trusting again and getting into another relationship, fearing you could be deceived. Why risk getting burned again?

It’s possible you gave away some money or details about your life that you wish you hadn’t. You might feel exposed. All those feelings are normal and expected.

Sometimes a catfishing scheme can divide a family, if family members are skeptical about your relationship and you defend it. It’s very possible to fall in love with the idea you have about who a person is.

How does someone protect themselves after they’ve been catfished?

  • Take control of your finances. If you gave away money or credit card information, talk to your bank about closing accounts.
  • Take a break from social media if you think that might help you heal emotionally.
  • Don’t suffer in silence. Talk to a counselor, friends or family members who are likely to be supportive and nonjudgmental.

Not all catfishing involves money being taken. Sometimes it’s just two people trying to connect with each other, albeit on false pretenses. The person on the other end is someone who doesn’t feel good enough about who they are to be authentic and believe someone could fall in love with them. So, they create an identity they think would attract someone. It’s sad for them and sad for the person deceived.

Know that catfishing has happened to many people. You’re not alone. It’s not something to be ashamed about, and the experience doesn’t have to keep you from falling in love again, this time without the deception.

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