By Tahiat Mahboob

In the age of leaked emails, hacked servers and data kidnapping, nothing, not even matters of the heart are safe from digital fraud. It’s a romance scam known as “catfishing” and ever since the rise of social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, scores of people have fallen prey to it.

“So with catfishing, really what someone is doing is they're adopting some real person's online identity, and they're taking that to establish online relationships,” says Signy Arnason, Associate Executive Director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. “It's kind of another form of identity theft really, that's going on, on the internet.”

Why is it called catfishing?

The first time this fraudulent scheme came into the limelight was in 2010, through the documentary, Catfish. In it, Nev Schulman, a 28-year-old photographer, fell in love with a beautiful young woman’s Facebook profile and voice on the phone. He then discovered that the person was actually a middle-aged wife and mother by the name of Angela Wesselman. In fact, the name of the documentary and the now commonly used term “catfishing” was inspired by something Wesselman’s husband Vince Pierce said:

“They used to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China. They’d keep them in vats in the ship. By the time the codfish reached China, the flesh was mush and tasteless. So this guy came up with the idea that if you put these cods in these big vats, put some catfish in with them and the catfish will keep the cod agile. And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank god for the catfish because we would be droll, boring and dull if we didn't have somebody nipping at our fin.”

The documentary led to a reality show of the same name where Schulman helped people who had established an online-only relationship, suss out if they were being catfished and facilitate an in-person meeting to find out the truth.

Catfishing a danger for children

Since the early days of catfishing, the end goal of the scam has gone far beyond seeking a romantic connection under false pretenses. “They are still looking for that relationship with the person, but a lot of times it's for a nefarious reason,” says Gord Olson, a constable with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Manitoba, and with the Internet Child Exploitation Unit.

One such nefarious case made international headlines in September 2013. It involved Chris “Birdman” Andersen, an NBA player in Colorado, Paris Dunn, an aspiring model from California, and Shelly Lynn Chartier, a First Nations woman living in Easterville, Manitoba. Chartier orchestrated the scam in fall 2011 when she posed as Dunn to communicate with Andersen and vice-versa. At the time, Dunn was 17, Andersen was 33 and Chartier was 29.

After securing nude photos from Dunn, Chartier sent them to Andersen. Andersen responded in kind thinking he was receiving and sending photos to Dunn. He also thought Dunn was 21. A few months later, Chartier posed as Dunn’s mother and attempted to extort Andersen. The ensuing events led to an 18-month investigation involving law enforcement agencies on both sides of the border. Chartier was arrested in January 2013 and charged with a string of crimes, including impersonation, extortion, making threats, and possession and transmission of child pornography.

Social media and the availability of different apps played a significant role in facilitating Chartier’s catfishing, giving her access to unsuspecting people, one of whom was underage.

“We've opened this world to a whole community that doesn’t have the best intentions of children at heart and is utilizing that to their advantage,” says Arnason. “It's created this enormous problem in relation to how you dial this back or where you even try and intersect in a space where — especially when you're talking about teenagers — you're not going to know most of what they're doing.” This presents significant challenges not only for parents, but also for those dedicated to protecting kids, like Arnason and Olson.

So how does one protect oneself or their children from catfishing?

• Be your own detective
“If you believe you're being catfished, be your own detective. Check other social media sites for the person that you're speaking with. Have a closer look at this person's social media presence,” says Olson. This includes checking to see if they have dated pictures, or pictures of them when they were younger, or only pictures of them at a certain age. If red flags come up, dig deeper. “Typically if it [seems] too good to be true, it typically is too good to be true and something more is going on,” he adds.

• Things to watch out for
Where is the person you are chatting with? Does the person ask to chat on an outside email or messaging service so their encounter cannot be tracked on a social media or dating site? Sometimes the person who is catfishing will claim to be from the same country but say he or she is traveling, living or working abroad.

Check their photos. A quick way to check a profile photo’s authenticity is to upload it to Google Images and see what matches Google finds. If the search results show that it’s a stock photo or refers back to the profile of a completely different person — that’s a red flag.

Do they ask for money? Perhaps the most telltale sign is if the person asks for credit card information or money to be wired due to an emergency such as a sick relative or stolen wallet.

For children, matters get a little bit more complicated, especially since it’s not possible for parents to be with them 24/7.

• Develop rules and monitor your children’s online activities
“As soon as you have young children connecting, utilizing the iPad, going on YouTube, you are not doing that without some rules and regulations around what that means. And you're showing them you're completely involved and engaged,” says Arnason. This has a longer impact too. Being involved from an early age means that as children grow older, a parent’s interest and concern about what they're doing online won't come as a shock to kids.

Olson suggests a similar approach. “Parents should be monitoring their, their kids social media platforms that they're on, what, who they're talking to, what they're doing,” he says.  “If you don’t know who somebody is that's following them or is a friend of them, ask who that is, and hopefully they'll be able to tell you.”

• Talk to children about online safety
Arnason also advocates for parents to strategically engage their children in discussions about these matters. If they notice things that are emerging online that are affecting teenagers, she suggests using that opportunity to have a conversation without making it about their children. “If you don’t make it about them, they're more likely to engage in the conversation,” she says. “You're then in a good position to be opening them up and getting a sense of their views around it, and to be challenging — maybe whether they have to consider taking additional measures to be safe online.”

Talking about the importance of personal safety and educating children is key says Arnason. “There is sometimes a bit of a gap with the kids recognizing that they're actually heading into difficult territory and it's something that they should put the brakes on, and either contemplate or consider talking to an adult about.”

• Stress the importance of telling an adult
Part of that conversation includes stressing the importance of cutting off communication, coming forward even if it’s a difficult scenario, and telling an adult, even if it’s not the parents. “So if it’s not your parents you feel you can go to because that can be a difficult conversation to be had, then maybe it's a teacher at school, maybe it's coming into an organization like ours to let us know potentially what's happened,” she adds.