Are You Being Catfished?

This post was written jointly with Alec Couros and also appears on his blog.

Catfishing schemes, or romance scams, continue to plague social networking services. In fact, the issue has become so common that there’s a good chance that one of your recent “friend” requests actually came from a scammer versus someone who is actually interesting in pursuing a genuine friendship. Unfortunately, social networks on the whole seem content to turn a blind eye on the problem, despite the fact that people lose thousands of dollars to these types of scams every day. So, due to this alarming issue and utter lack of response from social networking sites, we’ve compiled a few tips, techniques and questions to ask yourself when evaluating an online profile. We hope that this information might prove be useful for both personal use and as an instructional tool.

Step 1: Assess the authenticity of the profile picture

This is really the easiest place to start. Drop the picture into Google’s reverse image search to see where else the image appears. TinEye, a dedicated reverse-image search engine, is also a great tool that can be used for to perform this search. If the picture is associated with many different names or profiles, it’s likely that you’re dealing with a scam account.

Step 2: Critique the bio

Catfishing accounts often use similar biographical components. Some red flags include:

  • A relationship status of “widowed” or “divorced” (obviously not all widowed or divorced people are catfishers, but this status in combination with other red flags might be an indication of a fake account)
  • A job that is of exceptional status and that may require a great deal of travel and/or periods without communication (e.g., military, engineer, oil worker, self-employed, shipping), making it easy for the scammer to make excuses for being absent, unavailable, or out of the country.
  • An “about” section that includes clichéd, romantic statements such as “looking for love” or statements that may stereotypically reinforce one’s integrity (as in this scammer profile below; also note that he describes himself as “God-fearing” and that there are obvious spelling mistakes in the name of the supposed alma mater – which we discuss more later):


Step 3: Investigate the profile name

The name on the account can also be a clue about the legitimacy of the account:

  • Many catfishers seem to pull from a list of popular names. If you search for the profile name on Facebook and lots of other profiles with the same name and similar occupations pop up, you may want to look more closely. At the time of writing, numerous “Nelson Colbert” profiles appear on Facebook and all seem to be fake profiles made up similar components discussed so far (e.g., stolen profile photo, suspect occupation, etc.).


  • Check to make sure that the name on the profile matches the name in the URL. Otherwise, it might be a sign that the scammer has had to change their profile name when a victim found them out.

3Google the profile name. Most people have at least some sort of digital footprint these days. Can you find the person? Does what you find match up with what they are telling you?

Step 4: Investigate the profile page

Some other elements of the profile to watch out for include:

  • Number of friends: Does the person have few friends? Do their friends interact authentically with them on their page, or do you only see the same people commenting/liking over and over again?
  • Types of friends: Often, if you are able to see the scammer’s friend list, it will consist overwhelmingly of people of the opposite gender (the target victims), as in this screenshot of a male scammer’s friend list:


  • Age of the profile: Is the profile brand new, or is there a history of photo uploads, status updates, posts from others, etc? Also, note that profile posts can be backdated and locations can be faked (as seen in the image below) to make a profile seem like it has a longer history than it actually does. However, the year that the (Facebook) profile was created can’t be faked.


  • Photos: Does the profile have only a few photos, or are there a variety of photos, including photos with others (watch out for pictures with children, as this can be part of the scam)? Do the photos look photoshopped (see “ghost dog” example below)?

  • Mutual friends: Do you have any mutual friends? Note that having a small number of mutual friends isn’t necessarily a sign of legitimacy: scammers will sometimes friend a victim’s friends to make themselves seem more legit. If you have only a small number of mutual friends, it’s a good idea to contact those friends to see if they actually know the person. In many cases, your friend may have accepted the fake profile, due to less discerning personal protocols regarding “friending” or simply in error.
  • Language/grammar: Many scammers do not speak English as a first language. If you notice many spelling or grammar mistakes even though the person claims to be from an English-speaking country, proceed with caution.
  • Religious affiliation: Scammers will also often pose as devoutly religious individuals and sometimes use scripture or religious language to appear more trustworthy or to manipulate their victims through shared belief-systems. In fact, religion-specific dating sites such as Christian Mingle, JDate, or Shaadi are often used by scammers.

Step 5: Watch for tell-tale behaviours

Scammers often follow predictable patterns of behaviour, and there are some common red flags:

    • Use of a private messaging platform: A scammer will often quickly try to move the interactions over to email, SMS, or a different instant messaging platform. This is done so that if the original profile is identified as a fake account and removed by the social network, the scammer will not lose direct contact with their potential victim.
    • Rushing towards commitment: Scammers will try to move online relationships forward very quickly. It’s not uncommon for a catfisher to bring up marriage or to profess their love after only a few days or interactions; this helps to build a great sense of attachment and obligation, making victims more likely to agree to help the scammer later on.
    • Refusal to use video communication: Catfishers will often refuse to use anything but text or voice-based communication and will give excuses about poor connections to avoid having to Skype.
    • Out-of-sync, glitchy, or looped video: If a scammer does agree to video chat, their stream will generally be of very poor quality. This is because the scammer is usually using stolen footage that they found on Youtube or elsewhere online in order to fake a live conversation. In such cases, if audio is also present, it will appear to be out of sync with the video. Scammers may also cut video conversations short and complain of connectivity issues.
    • Repeated excuses to avoid meeting face to face: Catfishers will often make plans to meet up with their victims, but these plans will always fall through at the last minute for one reason or another.
    • Requests for compromising photos/videos: Often, scammers will request nude images or ask victims to participate in video chats of a sexual nature. These images or videos can then later be used to blackmail the victim, for instance, by threatening to send the files to the victim’s entire contact list or employer.
    • Emergencies: Once the catfisher has hooked their victim, they will likely be involved in some type of “emergency” situation. This might be an illness, loss of job, or the need to leave a location suddenly. In many cases, the scammer’s “children” may be involved.
    • Requests for money: This is obviously the top indication that you are dealing with a scammer. The request can take a variety of forms; two common techniques include advanced-fee fraud and requests for a money transfer through a company like Moneygram or Western Union (to make the money difficult to trace). Often, the victim will be told to send the money to someone other than the scammer (since the scammer is using a fake name).

Step 6: Ask for confirmation of identification

If you still aren’t completely sure whether or not you are dealing with a scammer, you can always ask for some form of confirmation.

  • Passport: Often scammers will provide a photoshopped passport as proof of identity (as in the image below). If the passport seems questionable, you can find images of real passports from various countries and compare them. You can also check out the passport photo guidelines for various countries (for instance, here are the US guidelines), which can help you determine if the photo meets the size/shape requirements.


  • Real-time photo or video: To verify identity, you can ask the individual to provide a real-time photo (with a newspaper with that day’s date, or holding up a certain number of fingers) or to perform certain actions while on video (raise one hand, clap hands, etc.). As well, if the scammer does provide a photo, be sure to check for signs of photoshopping, like in this picture below where the head has been (poorly) photoshopped onto the body and thus seems inordinately large.


  • At this point, we also can’t stress enough the need to use your common sense. If a profile just seems too good to be true, it unfortunately probably is (just like you don’t really have a secret relative who is the king of an African country and wants to share his wealth with you).

Step 7: Block, report, and warn others

Once you have determined that you are communicating with a scammer profile, there are a few steps you should take:

    • Report: Most social networking or dating sites have some sort of reporting tool. Often, reporting a profile will lead to it being taken down, preventing future scams on that account. As well, many victims report fake profiles to sites like Romance Scam or to Facebook groups set up to share information on scammers.
    • Block: Once you have reported the profile, you should unfriend and block the user. You may believe that the damage is already done, but if you do not unfriend and block the scammer, they will still have access to your photos, account info, and friends list. As well, people may see that you are friends with the scammer and take this as a sign that they can safely friend the account themselves.
    • Warn others: Another good step is to warn others in your circle of friends, especially if you notice that the scammer is attempting to connect with other members of your contact list.
    • Be vocal: Although there have been many attempts to improve policies at social networking services (we’re looking at you, Facebook), ultimately it will likely take a critical mass of complaints, media coverage, and awareness in order to achieve real change. So make you voice heard!

Other things to look out for:

  • Scammer “families”: In some cases, scammers will create an elaborate network of friends and family in order to bring legitimacy to the scammer profile. For instance, the fake Alex Gallart’s circle of contacts included his mother, friend, and daughter (of these, only the mother’s profile, Maria Gallart, is still up). In this case, scammers were actually using real photos of Alec’s family members to build the fake family.
  • Twinned accounts: One technique we’ve seen more of recently is when scammers create accounts that are essentially doubles of existing accounts. For instance, see these two photos:


Scammers will use these profiles to connect with the real person’s friends and family, who simply think they are (re)connecting with the victim. Then, the scammer can use a variation on the “grandparent scam”in order to ask friends and family to send money to deal with an emergency.

(Digital) Identity in a World that No Longer Forgets

This post was written jointly with Alec Couros and also appears on his blog.

In recent weeks, the topic of digital identity has been at the forefront of our minds. With election campaigns running in both Canada and the United States, we see candidate after candidate’s social media presence being picked apart, with past transgressions dragged into the spotlight for the purposes of public judgement and shaming. The rise of cybervigilantism has led to a rebirth of mob justice: what began with individual situations like the shaming of Justine Sacco has snowballed into entire sites intended to publicize bad online behaviour with the aim of getting people fired. Meanwhile, as the school year kicks into high gear, we are seeing evidence of the growing focus on digital identity among young people, including requests for our interning pre-service teachers to teach lessons about digital citizenship.

All this focus on digital identity raises big questions around the societal expectations about digital identity (i.e. that it’s sanitized and mistake-free) and the strategies that are typically used to meet those expectations. When talking to young people about digital identity, a typical approach is to discuss the importance of deleting negative artefacts and replacing them with a trail of positive artefacts that will outweigh these seemingly inevitable liabilities. Thus, digital identity has, in effect, become about gaming search results by flooding the Internet with the desired, palatable “self” so that this performance of identity overtakes all of the others.

But our current strategies for dealing with the idea of digital identity are far from ideal. From a purely practical perspective, it is basically impossible to erase all “negatives” from a digital footprint: the Internet has the memory of an elephant, in a sense, with cached pages, offline archives, and non-compliant international service providers. What’s more, anyone with Internet access can contribute (positively or negatively) to the story that is told about someone online (and while Europe has successfully lobbied Google for the “right to be forgotten” and to have certain results hidden in search, that system only scratches the surface of the larger problem and initiates other troubling matters). In most instances, our digital footprints remain in the control of our greater society, and particularly large corporations, to be (re)interpreted, (re)appropriated, and potentially misused by any personal or public interest.

And beyond the practical, there are ethical and philosophical concerns as well. For one thing, if we feel the need to perform a “perfect” identity, we risk silencing non-dominant ideas. A pre-service teacher might be hesitant to discuss “touchy” subjects like racism online, fearing future repercussions from principals or parents. A depressed teenager might fear that discussing her mental health will make her seem weak or “crazy” to potential friends or teachers or employers and thus not get the support she needs. If we become mired in the collapsed context of the Internet and worry that our every digital act might someday be scrutinized by someone, somewhere, the scope of what we can “safely” discuss online is incredibly narrow and limited to the mainstream and inoffensive.

And this view of digital identity also has implications for who is able to say what online. If mistakes are potentially so costly, we must consider who has the power and privilege to take the risk of speaking out against the status quo, and how this might contribute to the further marginalization and silencing of non-dominant groups.

In a world where forgetting is no longer possible, we might instead work towards greater empathy and forgiveness

 Our current strategy for dealing with digital identity isn’t working. And while we might in the future have new laws addressing some of these digital complexities (for instance, new laws are currently being proposed around issues of digital legacy) such solutions will never be perfect, and legislative changes are slow. Perhaps, instead, we might accept that the Internet has changed our world in fundamental ways and recognize that our societal mindset around digital missteps must be adjusted in light of this new reality: perhaps, in a world where forgetting is no longer possible, we might instead work towards greater empathy and forgiveness, emphasizing the need for informed judgment rather than snap decisions.

So what might that look like? The transition to a more forgiving (digital) world will no doubt be a slow one, but one important step is making an effort to critically examine digital artefacts before rendering judgment. Below, we list some key points to consider when evaluating problematic posts or other content.

Context/audience matters: We often use the “Grandma rule” as a test for appropriateness, but given the collapsed context of the online world, it may not be possible to participate fully in digital spaces if we adhere to this test. We should ask: What is the (digital) context and intended audience for which the artefact has been shared? For instance, was it originally posted on a work-related platform? Dating site? Forum? News article? Social network? Was the communication appropriate for the platform in which it was originally posted?

Intent matters: We should be cognizant of the replicability of digital artefacts, but we should also be sure to consider intent. We should ask: Was the artefact originally shared privately or anonymously? Was the artefact intended for sharing in the first place? How did the artefact come to be shared widely? Was the artefact made public through illegal or unethical means?

History matters: In face to face settings we typically don’t unfriend somebody based on one off-colour remark; rather we judge character based on a lifetime of interactions. We should apply the same rules when assessing a digital footprint: Does the artefact appear to be a one time thing, or is it part of a longer pattern of problematic content/behaviour? Has there been a sincere apology, and is there evidence that the person has learned from the incident? How would we react to the incident in person? Would we forever shame the person or would we resolve the matter through dialogue?

Authorship matters: Generations of children and teenagers have had the luxury of having their childhoods captured only by the occasional photograph, and legal systems are generally set up to expunge most juvenile records. Even this Teenage Bill of Rights from 1945 includes the “right to make mistakes” and the “right to let childhood be forgotten.” We should ask: When was the artefact posted? Are we digging up posts that were made by a child or teenager, or is this a recent event? What level of maturity and professionalism should we have expected from the author at the time of posting?

Empathy matters: Finally, we should remember to exercise empathy and understanding when dealing with digital missteps. We should ask: Does our reaction to the artefact pass the hypocrite test? Have we made similar or equally serious mistakes ourselves but been lucky enough to have them vanish into the (offline) ether? How would we wish our sons, daughters, relatives, or friends to be treated if they made the same mistake? Are the potential consequences of our (collective) reaction reasonable given the size and scope of the incident?

This type of critical examination of online artefacts, taking into consideration intent, context, and circumstance, should certainly be taught and practiced in schools, but it should also be a foundational element of active, critical citizenship as we choose candidates, hire employees, and enter into relationships. As digital worlds signal an end to forgetting, we must decide as a society how we will grapple with digital identities that are formed throughout the lifelong process of maturation and becoming. If we can no longer simply “forgive and forget,” how might we collectively develop a greater sense of digital empathy and understanding?
So what do you think? What key questions might you add to our list? What challenges might this emerging framework provide for digital citizenship in schools and in our greater society? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Social Networks and the Globalization of Happiness and Grief

This past summer, I wrote about my mother’s battle with a terminal brain illness, which has left her blind and with dementia. After publishing the post, I sent the link to a few family members, but I also shared it on Twitter. Then I headed out for a run to clear my head.

The first person to respond to my tweet was a former student, who thanked me for sharing my story. I remember so clearly seeing the notification, mid-run. My immediate reaction was one of confusion – some part of me had not considered that by sharing my post on Twitter, definitely the most public and professional of social networks for me, everyone would see it; my social contexts, so carefully separated in real life, were collapsed online. I felt vulnerable, but I also felt a sense of comfort and relief.

When I asked my family if it was okay to share what I’d written about my mother, my sister asked me why I wanted to post it online. I wasn’t sure then, and I’m sure not entirely sure now. Sharing online is an odd business, really, one that I’m still trying to wrap my head around. So much has been written about the ways in which social media has changed the way we relate to one another, from the digital dualists who argue that we need to privilege our face to face connections by unplugging, to those, like Nathan Jurgenson, who argue that Facebook is real life – that social media has merely shifted and augmented our relationships. Certainly, social networks have made it possible for us to share wonderful moments with a wide audience (like the recent video of a son who paid off his parents’ mortgage). But they have also shifted the nature of mourning, from private and localized suffering to a new, globalized grief.

Of course, this is not always a positive: our public/publicized mourning has led to hoaxes where people take advantage of human generosity and kindness, and it also backfired recently for Facebook, where the automatically generated “Year in Review” feature brought back painful memories for some users. It has led to the strange phenomenon of grief porn. And it has made it difficult at times for us to move on from traumatic events, as we are constantly reminded of them.

But the sharing of pain and trauma is also (for me, at least), on some level deeply comforting. Research suggests that social networking sites are so satisfying (and at times addictive) because of the endorphins that are released when we post or receive feedback from others in the form of likes, favourites, or comments, so perhaps this plays in role in why we share. And certainly there is something wonderful about receiving words of encouragement and sympathy from complete strangers, who reach out online out of simple human empathy. It is, in a sense, a reassurance of the deep-down, fundamental kindness of people: a reminder that grief is in many ways the great equalizer, a feeling to which we can all relate.

As I write, I watch my terminally-ill mother sleeping on the couch beside me. I am struck by the rapid decline in her functioning even since this summer, when I first shared her story. The moments of clarity come rarely now for her, and this Christmas has been tough for my family. And once again, I am drawn to share this, not only to write about how I am feeling, but to put it out into the world – to feel connected and, perhaps, simply to feel human in the midst of difficulty and pain.


Tragedy, Politics, and Grief in an Age of Immediacy and Networks

I’ve been working on a blog post for awhile now about digital identity, in an effort to get my ePortfolio and blog up and running before the craziness of a new semester sets in. I thought that soon, maybe today, I’d finally click publish on that post.

But then, just as I was gathering the courage to post, this Sunday my social media feeds exploded with sadness and injustice and hate, and I felt that I needed to write something different. I watched as news broke about the killing of an unarmed black teen in Missouri by police. Through the tweets of a few people in my Twitter feed, I followed the emerging stories of racism and violence and grief.

Yesterday, those stories continued. Last night, I saw tweets and news stories about the protests in Ferguson and about the rubber bullets and tear gas being used on protesters. And amidst all this, I learned of Robin Williams’ apparent suicide, which sparked an outpouring of grief, of sympathy, and of support for other sufferers of depression across both my Twitter and Facebook feeds.

I’ve seen it before, but perhaps the confluence of these very different tragedies made it more apparent. Networks, the Internet, our digital existence — all of this has changed the way we grieve and experience sadness and loss. Tragedies no longer break in the mainstream media — they break on Twitter, through the voices of the many, not the few.

In a networked world, tragedy and grief are quick to appear and then remain ever-present. There are constant reminders of those we’ve lost and of horrific events; it is hard to escape tragedy when it is everywhere in our new feeds. Of course, networks can bring support, comfort, and a feeling of solidarity, especially when we are far, physically, from those we love. But the immediacy and ubiquity of the news of tragedies also seems to bring quick politicization. In some ways, this is a positive — the coverage on social media will (hopefully) bring necessary attention to the events in Ferguson, Missouri. The outpouring of sadness in the wake of Robin Williams’ death may generate much-needed awareness about mental illness.

But the immediate politicization of tragey is also problematic. In the wake of the Ferguson shooting, I saw an argument arise on Twitter between two activists, Suey Park and Tim Wise, about the idea of privilege and the appropriate ways of being an ally in discussions of race. After Robin Williams’ death, debates over suicide and mental illness sprang up on social media. This is not new: after the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, there were immediate calls for gun-control, for arming teachers, for tighter screening of gun owners.

These conversations are important, no doubt. We need to talk about the entrenched racism that surrounds the events in Ferguson. We need to discuss mental illness, and guns, and privilege, and all of the other hard issues that tragedies bring to the surface.

But perhaps, first, we need a little time to mourn, alone or together, individually or through our networks. Perhaps, as outsiders looking in on tragic situations, we can just let grief be grief, for a little while at least.