How Common Is Catfishing?

Deception in online dating is a growing problem.

Posted Mar 05, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye

Key Points:

  • Catfishing, or the use of a fake online persona to lure someone into a false relationship, has grown increasingly common in recent years.
  • While not all dating deception is nefarious, some catfishing schemes are designed to scam victims out of money or valuable personal information.
  • Though both men and women fall prey to catfishing, evidence suggests that women are more likely to be victims. An anxious attachment style may also put someone at risk.
  • Online daters should exercise caution—especially when a potential date seems "too good to be true."

Ever wonder if that guy you're chatting with online is legit? Maybe the girl you found on a dating site seems a bit too good to be true, and yet, she seems really into you... could this be love or something else?

Online dating is a convenient way to meet new people, but it's also a convenient way for people to engage in selfish, or even malicious, acts of deception. This is of increasing public concern, given the growing use of dating apps. For many people, dating apps are a path to finding stable and healthy relationships. In fact, a recent survey suggests that over 40 percent of people in established relationships met their current partners online (Rosenfeld, Thomas, & Hausen, 2019), a number that has skyrocketed in the last decade. Online dating is clearly a helpful way to meet partners. But there are risks—not the least of which is catfishing.

What Is Catfishing?

When people intentionally misrepresent themselves online, perhaps adopting a fake identity or spinning stories about a past that holds no link to the truth, they are—in colloquial terms—"catfishing." Catfishing relationships typically remain online, with one person believing it is legitimate, and the other knowing it is not.

Online dating deception is fairly normative and largely benign. It usually refers to simply accentuating favorable features or downplaying less desirable ones. In other words, people using online dating apps regularly self-present in a not-perfectly-accurate way (e.g., perhaps noting their height or weight imprecisely) and most of these people have good intentions; they are simply engaging in strategic self-presentation.

The goal of catfishing is different. From the very start, catfishing's core is deception; there are usually no plans to move a relationship offline because it's not an honest relationship.

In its most extreme form, catfishing involves throwing out the bait (e.g., attractive photos, words expressed that suggest sincere interest) and then stringing the victim along for a bit before escalating to requests for money or personal information. Not all catfishing involves financial scams, but when it does, catfishing can mislead individuals to think they are in a legitimate relationship to the point where they want to send money or help. They've been scammed: hook, line, and sinker.

Who Perpetrates Catfishing and Who Are the Victims?

A recent study (Mosley et al., 2020) suggests that both men and women perpetrate catfishing, although proportionally, men are more likely to do so. Remember here that catfishing need not necessarily involve financial scams: simply creating a relationship that is false—maybe even a game to the catfisher—while it feels real and important to the other person fits the definition of catfishing. Women are more likely to be victims of catfishing. Both of these findings may reflect cultural norms that define men as relationship initiators, placing them in a position to catfish, versus being the target of catfishing.

People higher in attachment anxiety appear to be more prone to perpetrating catfishing and are more likely to be victims of catfishing compared to individuals with more secure attachment orientations. Perhaps concerns of rejection and distrust about one's own self-worth motivate the deceptive self-presentation that underlies catfish perpetration by highly anxious individuals. Maintaining a relationship without putting the self at risk might allow for relational closeness while protecting the self. Why anxious individuals are victims of catfishing is less clear.

How Common is Catfishing?

Nearly one out of four women (23 percent) admitted that they had perpetrated catfishing in a recent study that sampled 917 women (Mosley et al., 2020). Does this surprise you? The percentage was even higher in their sample of 190 men, with one in three men (38 percent) confessing that they had perpetrated catfishing. These numbers emphasize the need for vigilance and care during online dating. 

Prioritizing safety is a critical first step in seeking companionship. Be skeptical when a person seems "too good to be true," or has online friends who are predominantly the sex they seem to be attracted to; these might be people who, like you, are being victimized with a false relationship. When people make excuse after excuse for not meeting up in person, this too may be a red flag. And of course, any requests for private information (e.g., bank info or social security numbers) or requests for money transfers signal this is very likely a scam. Loneliness can make us long for a relationship; be proactive in taking steps to protect yourself from becoming a victim of catfishing.

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

References

Mosley, M. A., Lancaster, M., Parker, M. L., & Campbell, K. (2020). Adult attachment and online dating deception: a theory modernized, Sexual and Relationship Therapy, DOI: 10.1080/14681994.2020.1714577

Rosenfeld, M. J., Thomas, R. J., & Hausen, S. (2019). Disintermediating your friends: How online dating in the United States displaces other ways of meeting. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(36), 17753-17758.