catfish online dating cat
Design Art by Dasha Burobina

In 2010, a documentary about online dating premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and gave a name to type of scammer that was far more common across the internet than anyone had realized: Catfish. The film follows Nev Schulman as he begins an online relationship with "Megan" through Facebook. Along with Schulman, we learn that "Megan" wasn't real, and the actual person—Angela—had been fooling everyone including her husband, Vince. After learning about his wife's antics, Vince compared her to the catfish that would be shipped alongside cod in order to keep the cod active and alert during their passage from Asia to North America. Without the addition of the catfish, the cod arrived in deteriorated shape from inactivity, ultimately effecting the quality of the fish. Add in a catfish though, and the cod would stay on their proverbial toes.

Two years later, the film (and this new snazzy word) inspired the hit MTV series, Catfish, which follows people as they not only expose their catfishes, but get to confront them. Now, with 197 episodes available to watch, I was one of the many viewers who immersed themselves in watching these romance scams unfold time and time again. And yet somehow, I let it happen to me. Here's my story.

catfish online dating
Design Art by Dasha Burobina

It was the summer of 2021 when I matched with “Adam.” He was an attractive 20-something with a witty profile. I’d tried other popular dating apps, and I was slowly losing hope of making a genuine connection with someone. So, I was thrilled that he not only was the one to reach out first, but that our the conversation flowed easily without the pressure of hooking up or being witty on my feet that comes from meeting in person. He wanted to get to know me, asking about what I did for living and what I was looking for in a relationship, which I appreciated. I went to sleep giddy that night, thinking to myself that maybe online dating wasn’t so bad. I wasn’t expecting a first date or a steady relationship right away, but at least there was something brewing.

The next morning the tone shifted. “Adam” asked to move our conversation to Snapchat, which seemed odd, and he was persistent in asking me to send pictures of myself. Also odd. I spent more time dodging his requests than having any normal getting-to-know-you conversation. Meanwhile, he had no problem sending me selfies, of which I did not ask for. When I asked if he had an Instagram, he made an ultimatum: If I sent him a picture on Snapchat, he would grant me more access to his life. Simply put: Things were feeling a bit…fishy.

catfish online dating quote two
Design Art by Dasha Burobina

I’d watched enough Catfish to know the tell-tale signs, so I decided to put those investigative tricks to use with the Google image reverse technique I’ve seen a million times on the show. If you’re not familiar, basically you can use Google to look for identical images to find the original source of that image. A couple of clicks, and it didn’t take long to see that all those photos of “Adam” belonged to someone else. “Adam” wasn’t real.

I could’ve let it go and joined the ghosting train, but I was angry. I sent over a screenshot of the real person’s account and asked, “Is this you?” I watched the “Adam is typing…” on the bottom of the screen before I was suddenly removed from his friends list on Snapchat. I toggled over to Hinge to find that we were unmatched. There was no trace of the catfish aside from a quick screenshot of the moment I caught him red-handed.

At the time, I told people with pride that I’d caught a catfish. It was just a bad 24-hour online dating moment, and if I could talk through it, I could just laugh it off.

But it didn’t take long for the disappointment to seep in. I spent that night and most of the next in tears. I couldn’t get out of bed or even think about the experience without feeling overwhelmed by anger. There was also the thoughts in the back of my mind that filled me with dread: How long could this have gone on? How much was I going to give “Adam” until I paid the price of my self-esteem and self-worth?

Online dating had always seemed more appealing and far less nerve-wracking than IRL dating. I could hide behind my phone and feel more confident reaching out to others. While the thought of going out and talking to someone freaked me out, I felt comfortable chatting online. I thought talking with "Adam" was finally filling the void of loneliness. In those first moments chatting with "Adam," it felt like I was on the brink of something, and I could think ah, something—anything—is finally happening.

While the MTV show is filled with twists and turns that make for great viewing (like how one victim thought they’d been chatting with Katy Perry for years), my blip of an experience felt like an episode full of those same twists and turns, but all in my head and at lightening speed. I was still dizzy from the whiplash of it all. Naturally, there was really only one person I could turn to: the guy who basically invented the term in the first place and Catfish host, Nev Schulman.

“To a certain extent, the endless swiping can pull us away from each other and make us skip over potential ‘perfect matches.’ Through online dating, we’re conditioned to first judge someone on their appearance rather than what’s inside,” Schulman told me when I asked what he thought about the current state of dating apps. “At the same time, in the past two years or so we’ve seen it really bring people together. The pandemic kept all of us out of the public, trapped inside our homes, and online dating was a way for people to continue to get to know one another. I think online dating has opened up the number of people we come into contact with and introduced us to more people than just the ones you hang around with socially or at work.” Hmm, more people like “Adam”?

While Schulman remains more optimistic than I currently do about online dating, he didn’t shy away from highlighting the darker underbelly of it—after all, with eight seasons already under his belt, it doesn’t look like catfishing is slowing down anytime soon: “​​From my background with Catfish, I know that romance scams are still a big part of everyday life for many people. Even after ten years of filming the show, people continue to deal with being scammed when it comes to romantic relationships. The media is filled with many examples where someone can try and use different tactics to build trust so that you easily miss some obvious red flags,” shares Schulman. One of the biggest red flags, he explains, is when catfish instill a sense of urgency. “Romance scammers will often ‘love-bomb’ you with affection and then wait for the perfect moment to fabricate an urgent situation requiring money that pulls at your heartstrings. As technology advances and online dating continues to be the main way people first meet one another, it's more important than ever for people to take a step back and evaluate why someone is pressuring you to give them something, especially money.”

So, to make sure no one faced “Adam” or his scammy tactics, I filed a complaint with Hinge. Of course, I only got a generic response reading: “We're sorry you went through this. We'll be looking into it.” As for what the industry is doing on a larger scale to protect users, there’s not much movement. While I’ve heard that popular apps like Tinder are finally doing background checks, I have a feeling it’s more about a short-term PR play to combat bad press following the popular Netflix documentary Tinder Swindler, than really about protecting people from romance scams. So yeah, I’m still not sold on online dating.

catfish online dating quote three
Design Art by Dasha Burobina

The worst part though? I didn’t get my redemption. In the show, Catfish victims ultimately get to face their perpetrators and ask them about their true motivations. There's real catharsis, where victims tell their catfish how it affected them. In my case, I never got that face-to-face moment to ask “why?” I’ll never get the chance to understand what motivated “Adam” to humiliate me. There was no closure, and lots of painful feelings remain.

So, I asked Schulman if he had any tips for overcoming being catfished. “There is a certain level of shock that comes with being catfished, and once you find out it can send you into a spiral. I always tell people to slow down and give themselves time to fully process the situation before jumping into something else,” Schulman advises. “Talk to your friends and family. Don’t hold in your emotions about the situation, confide in those you know and trust because it will help you deal with the pain.”

But I think the tip that really resonated with me the most is not letting this experience tarnish finding a connection with someone even if I’m not ready for online dating right now. “Don’t blame yourself,” he kindly told me. “It’s OK to mourn the relationship you thought you had, but don’t blame yourself for not seeing the red flags. When you’re in the moment, it’s sometimes not until afterward that you realize,” he adds.

It might be time to step out of my comfort zone and try some traditional IRL meet-ups. After all, I hear there’s plenty of fish in the sea, but I’m really hoping catfish isn’t on the menu.

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