How to Avoid Getting 'Catfished' Online

Tips to help you find out if your online significant other is real or not

Anonymous woman in mask on internet at night

Peter Dazeley / Stone / Getty Images

Is the person you're falling in love with online really who they say they are? That was the subject of the 2010 documentary: Catfish, which also spawned a TV show by the same name.

On the TV show, the filmmaker who was the subject of the documentary film helps people who believe they are being duped by someone online. Each episode usually culminates in the filmmakers arranging a meeting between the two people involved in the relationship. Sometimes things turn out good, sometimes not so much.

At the beginning of each episode of the TV show, the filmmakers meet the "victim," for lack of a better term, and then start doing some online detective work to try and find out if the person that the victim is romantically involved with online is real, or if they are a "catfish."

Recently, there was a high profile alleged "Catfishing" involving Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, who claims to have been the victim of a malicious catfishing hoax.

How Can You Avoid Getting Catfished Online?

Catfishing involves some of the same impersonation methods used by hackers and malicious social engineers. While the intentions of the perpetrator may be different, the goal is the same, convince someone that you are someone else by means of deception. In catfishing, social media is often used to aid in the pretext.

You can avoid being catfished by doing some detective work on your own and utilizing online tools such as Google Image Search (used by the Catfish filmmakers themselves) to help you find out if the person you are having an online relationship with is real, or just a made up persona.

How Can You Spot a Catfish?

The most efficient thing you can do is use Google's "Search By Image" feature to check For multiple Facebook profiles with the same profile image.

Google is not just for text searches anymore. Google's Search by Image is a neat tool that allows you to upload a picture or a link to a picture and then scour the web for similar images. The Catfish filmmakers have used this same tool in the TV series to try and see if catfish perpetrators are using images stolen from other profiles rather than images of themselves.

How to Use Google's 'Search by Image'

  1. Find an image of the person you believe is catfishing you and either save the image to your computer or copy the link to the image. This can be done in most web browsers by right-clicking the image and choosing either Copy link or Save Image As.
  2. Go to in your web browser.
  3. Click on the camera icon in the search box next to the blue search button.
  4. If you copied a link to the image then you can paste the link into the search box that pops up by right-clicking the search box and choosing paste. If you saved the image to your computer then you can click the Upload an Image link (above the search box) and upload the picture to Google
  5. Click the Search by Image button.

Alternatively, if you have Firefox as your browser, the easiest and fastest way to perform a Google search by image is to install and use the Google Search by Image Firefox Browser Extension. Once this extension is installed, simply right-click any image on the web and click Search Image on Google for instant results.

If you find the image you searched on listed under multiple Facebook profiles under different names, then you might have just caught yourself a catfish.

Look for an Extremely Low Facebook Friend Count

Does your online significant other only have 10 friends listed on his or her Facebook account? This can be another catfish warning sign as many catfish will create fake friend accounts so that they can use their imaginary friends to help enhance the illusion that they are really someone else. Creating and maintaining these fake profiles takes a lot of effort which is one reason why they may only create 10 to 15 fake friends.

Look for Pictures With No Tags

If you look at photos of a suspected catfish, they may be missing tags to other people in the photos. Again, linking photos to friends that don't exist can be challenging, even if you have fake profiles set up for those fake friends. Once slip-up in linking photos to profiles may ruin the whole illusion which may be a reason that catfish may not have a lot of photo tags in their photos (if any).

Although untagged pictures may be a sign of a possible catfish, don't rely on it as a perfect method of spotting one because, as we saw in the Catfish movie, some catfish such as the woman in the movie, had tagged photos linked to multiple fake accounts and was able to make the whole thing look very convincing.

Other Catfish Warning Signs

If your online significant other is always making excuses for why they can't meet you in person, talk on the phone, or use Skype or Facetime for a video chat, then they may not be who they claim to be. By itself, not wanting to meet in person might not indicate that they are a catfish, but combined with some of the other indicators above, it may be a sign that you're being lied to.