"Somebody's daughter, niece, sister, friend..." This phrase has been running in my head for thirteen days now and is my motivation for writing this article. I know what I experienced is not an isolated incident. I also know when you are too embarrassed to share a story on a topic that needs some attention the perpetrator wins. So even though I just want to forget about my experience, move on and not give "this person" one more second of my time, I am not writing for me or for him, I am writing for "them."
I know as I write this there are hundreds of thousands of people who are pursuing meaningful and authentic connections with other people. With their beautiful hearts, these people pursue love with admirable vulnerability. They choose to see the world with humility, light and hope. For the catfisher, people who are full of hope, make perfect prey because even if they have their doubts, they want to believe in the good in other people. They (I) struggle with the question: Why would anyone go through so much trouble to lie?
Before I share my story... What is catfishing?
Catfishing is the activity of luring someone into a relationship by means of a fictional persona carried out via dating websites and apps, social media, chat rooms and instant messaging platforms. A "catfisher" may choose to use their own photos yet pretend to be a different age, sex, profession, in a different location, and be single when they are not. A catfisher can also use someone else's photos to create their fake identity.
What motivates a catfisher to do what they do? It is hard to say but as I combed through endless blog posts and online articles about catfishing some of the common themes for motivation were the following: Identity issues, sex addiction, revenge, loneliness, curiosity and/or boredom.
What crimes are they committing? Twelve states make it a crime to impersonate someone online but those laws generally don't apply to creating a fictitious persona. Thirty-four states have cyberbullying laws that could be used to prosecute catfishers if intention to cause emotional distress can be proven. In California, there is an online impersonation law that protects people whose photos were used without their permission. Criminal charges could also be made against a catfisher who shows intent to blackmail, obtain money, or have sex with minors.
As there are various reasons motivating a catfisher, there is no telling where they may or may not draw the line. Maybe I have watched one too many episodes of Dateline but I wonder what happens when a catfisher gets bored with their current set of "weapons of emotional warfare" and wants to "up their game?" It seems like the perfect gateway crime for other types of identity fraud and sex crimes.
One last point on the crimes of a catfisher -- I wish someone could be prosecuted for Time Thievery, DAMN IT!
Here's My Story
Nobody really wants to talk about catfishing. Yet when I started to share my story with close friends I realized that everyone has a story to share. I heard numerous accounts about meeting someone in person after connecting via an online dating tool only to find out that the person lied about their age, relationship, status, career, etc. Just last week my friend found out someone had created a profile on Ok Cupid using her photos from Facebook.
Facebook reports that roughly 10 percent of user profiles are fake accounts. There are three classifications of fake accounts -- duplicate accounts, user-misclassified accounts and what they call "undesirable" accounts. Many dating apps require a Facebook account to create a profile. Although it is hard to track down transparent reporting of fake accounts on dating apps and websites, some reports suggest that one out of every ten profiles on dating sites or apps are fake. In our "swipe left or right" culture of pursuing connections, the average person on a dating app is looking at 10 times this amount of profiles a day, making the likelihood of interaction with someone who is not who they say they are very high.
It was my "Oh, what the hell" attitude that ultimately made a relationship with my catfisher possible. My "hopeful heart" played a role but I refuse to accept that as my downfall and by the way... my heart is still hopeful, but more on that later.
My catfisher found me on the dating app Hinge. Like Tinder and Bumble, Hinge users need to have a Facebook account to create a profile and uses the trendy "swipe left or right" user interface to view profiles. Unlike the other apps, Hinge limits the amount of profiles you can view a day in hopes that you will be more thoughtful when you review your profiles for the day. You are only able to communicate with a person after both parties have swiped right for "YES." I swiped right on "David T." with the following thoughts and judgements in my mind:
"Wow, he is hot!! Probably knows it too. Augh, maybe too much work, probably shallow, wait... look at this photo with kind eyes, he can't be all that bad? Oh, he is a doctor too... must love helping people. Hmmn, a little bit younger than me, I hope he is mature. And from Canada, I like people from Canada... oh what the hell, Swipe right!"
The following day, I get a message from "David Tee." After you match, last names are revealed. Tee? First clue: Not a likely last name for a white man from Canada.
The message -- "Do you realize I have had a crush on you for over 24 hours?"
The message made me smile and worked for me. Why? Because if you are on these apps you know there is some weird energy around who communicates first and in many cases after matching, no one initiates communication.
When a man communicates first after matching on a dating app, I always respond. Every man I respect and admire including Steve Harvey, who I think has one of the best approaches for helping men and women understand and love one another, says, "The man should pursue the woman." I agree with this, this works for me.
My response to "David Tee" -- "That is sweet. Thank you, yet technically you just have a crush on the image of me, not me." (I added some happy face emoticons to ensure he knew I was being playful.)
In the next couple of days, "David Tee" and I spent hours in extended instant messaging communication via Hinge. He went into great details about his childhood traumas that contributed to his current relational issues. I was a sucker for his vulnerability as I had similar experiences in my childhood. His words and stories seemed real. I also liked how he would find positive things to focus on. And there was plenty of "sexy talk" in our conversation. Again, my "oh what the hell" attitude got the best of me.
He had me on two levels: Emotionally because I thought we shared similar backgrounds and could understand each other and physically because I could not stop fantasizing about him. I was completely distracted by hopeful possibilities; however, I was also feeling pretty unhealthy about things too. Before I knew it, weeks had gone by and I was falling hard for someone that I had NEVER met.
I told him how I felt. I told him it felt unhealthy and I believed we should meet. He used his "childhood" traumas as an excuse not to meet and stated he was back in Canada at his "family's summer home" and would not be back in my local area until late August.
I told him I was uncomfortable communicating via the dating app anymore and then he started texting me from a local number. After two weeks of communicating via texts from this number, he told me he could no longer use that number because "his work" had access to it. He offered up the instant messaging app KIK as a solution. I replied, "I am not interested in diving deeper into the digital world." He then texted me from another number that had a Canadian area code. His first text from that number "Did we just break up?"
With too much weirdness and inconsistencies in his story now, I was planning my exit strategy yet still wanted to give him a chance to explain. We had a couple more interactions and then I told him I was going to need a phone call in order to continue communications with him. I let him know if this was not something he was willing to do, I would need to block any future communications with him. I got a confirmation that he read my message and then blocked him on Hinge.
In the days following my decision to block him, I am embarrassed to admit I took a walk on the dark side. I could not let it go. Who had I actually been talking to? Could he be watching me? Am I in danger? I wanted to get to the bottom of who this person really was. Was there any truth to his story? I got pretty angry too. I wanted this person to pay for wasting my time and I wanted to make sure he could not continue playing his emotional games with anyone else either. I called the first number he gave me. It was disconnected. What a lying bastard!! I researched the second number and realized it was just connected to another instant messaging app called TextMe. Somewhere about this time I reported the profile to Hinge because I was sure he was a catfisher now. I also did reverse Google image searches on all the photos he shared with me. I was surprised I did not find any matches so I decided to pay socialcatfish.com to do a more advanced search. By the way, I highly recommend this service to anyone that suspects they are communicating with someone that is lying about who they are. The interface on the site looks impersonal yet a real person got back with me and asked me questions that ultimately lead to loads of information that helped me come to terms with what happened.
I learned the real identity of the person in the photos. My first instinct was to contact this man and let him know his photos were being used to commit identity fraud. Then I started reviewing his social posts and realized that words, phrases, topics and themes were similar to our conversations. I also found a couple incidents where there was 100 percent alignment to words and topics shared at the same time via our private communication. However, age, profession, location and relationship status where completely different from what "David Tee" presented. I also realized after going through all of his public photos that I had two photos he had never shared via social media.
There were only two conclusions to draw from this -- either someone with close personal access to the "real" person in the photos created the fake profile or the "real" person in the photos was using a fake persona with his own photos. I made contact with the "real" person and based on his response and lack of action, I believe the "real" person is behind the "fake" profile. After a lot of soul searching in regards to revealing what I believe is true, I decided to focus my attention on solutions instead of giving any more attention to this person who does not deserve even a second more of my time.
I am also investigating what the policies are for reporting and notification of identify fraud on other dating apps. Going forward, I personally will only use apps that have a transparent process for reporting fake profiles and alerting users if and when they have been messaging with a profile that has been proven to be fake.
Secondly, I needed to come to terms with where I wanted to place blame. I don't blame my catfisher -- he is a product of his environment and the choices he makes. I am also responsible for my own choices. I forgive myself for getting caught up in such a ridiculous mess of deception. I don't blame the creators of the dating app -- they saw an opportunity in the marketplace and went for it.
I blame a broken communication system that has allowed text and instant messaging to be the preferred form of communication for all topics regardless of who you are talking to and the status of the relationship. We use text without any consideration to circumstance. We reach for our phones for quick fixes of instant gratification with the same level of insensitivity that is required to use a flyswatter.
Some people might not see a problem with this yet and that is ok. For those of us that take issue with it, perhaps it is time to address how best to use to text and instant messaging especially in the pursuit of meaningful connection. I know there is room for improvement here and this is why my heart remains hopeful.
I truly believe that everyone has a deep desire to be seen and loved for who they really are. This is only possible via two things: In-person communication and shared experiences over time. If texting/instant messaging is one of the main distractions that prevents those things from happening, I believe I can improve the chances for meaningful connection for myself and other people by taking some sort of stance against texting. Even if I prevent one less text from happening each day, I am just the right amount of hopeful (or crazy if you choose to see it that way) to believe I can make a difference.
My new story begins here. I am pledging to use texting and instant messaging in a way that supports my pursuit of meaningful connections with other people. I have published the parameters of my pledge on a new site called "No Text or Next." If better communication and meaningful relationships are important to you, I encourage you to take the pledge with me.