Catfishing was a thing long before the 2010 documentary gave it a weird name. Pretending to be someone else online is half the point of the internet, and we all know someone who's stretched the truth on a dating profile or social media bio. Unsurprisingly, a 2014 Scientific American report found that 54 percent of all online daters believe they've encountered a catfish on a dating site. But online deception goes beyond the quest to get laid. Some people catfish for money, others to literally Catch a Predator, and some just do it because they're bored. We talked to a few catfishers and catfishees to find out why they did it, or how they got fooled.
When I was in high school, my friend Dan and I were bored and decided to create a fake girl on Facebook. We named her Ashley Schneider-Anderssen, and she ended up coming to life. It started out casually: We stole pictures from some random girl's MySpace and friended all our friends, giving Ash a rich backstory—she was bi, worked at Superamerica (Minnesota's version of 7-Eleven), and was a stripper on the side. We also decided she was best friends with Lucy, a real girl we'd gone to junior high with who'd recently started doing a lot of drugs.
We started to mention Ashley in real life, pretending she'd been at our parties and done embarrassing things. "Omg did you see Ash knock over that 40 last weekend? I was so pissed, who even told her about the party." We'd update her status on Facebook to reflect the events of each party, and tag her in the background of random drinking pictures. Pretty soon, other people started talking about Ashley, claiming to have met and interacted with her.
At one party, some random blond girl from the suburbs got into a fight with a senior, called her a racial slur, and pulled down her tube top. Everyone at the party thought this random blonde was Ashley, and we got some angry messages from the senior and her friends over Facebook threatening to beat Ash up if they "ever saw her at a party again." We convinced a couple people that Ashley was in love with them, using the "poke" feature and sending creepy messages. They started to complain that Ashley was hitting on them, and Dan and I would die laughing because, again, ASHLEY WAS NOT REAL.
Then one night, Lucy showed up at a party with a blonde, bisexual stripper named Ashley in tow. She literally could have been the sister of the girl whose MySpace photos we stole. Dan and I were shocked. Everyone else just assumed it was the same Ashley. We have no idea where she came from, or how this happened. As real Ashley started showing up to more events, we slowly tapered off our fake Ashley trolling. Her Facebook is still up, but most people are in on the joke now. Still, ten years later, she gets a few random people earnestly wishing her a happy birthday. -Caroline, 27
Catfished by a Bass
It was the very early days of the internet, around 1996 or '97, and I had two things working against me: I was very young, and I couldn't conceive of the idea that people would deliberately lie to or take advantage of you over the web. So when someone announced in an AOL chat room about *NSYNC that Lance Bass would be on to take questions directly from fans, I didn't for one second think it could be someone not Lance Bass. I typed his provided handle—something that should've been an instant red flag, LanceBassofNSync or something similarly ridiculous—into search, and it came up.
I messaged him and waited. It didn't take long to get a reply (another red flag). He asked me how I was. I told him. We chatted for what seemed like a very long time—he told me about Justin and Joey and a couple fun stories from the road. It was getting late, and I finally logged off to go to bed after maybe the fifth verbal warning from my mom, who thought I was just talking to my friend Sheree. The next day, Lance Bass messaged me. We chatted again, and then for a third time the following day. I was 18 and online friends with a boy I idolized and, I was convinced, would definitely marry me one day.
On the fourth day of our budding romance, Lance told me he would be happy to send me an advanced copy of *NSYNC's new album several weeks before it was released. All he needed was a credit card number and a mailing address. I didn't even blink before I was fishing around in my mom's purse looking for a card. When she asked me what the hell I was doing, I confessed this secret I'd been keeping to myself—Lance Bass of *NSYNC and I have been chatting online all week, are in love, are in love, and will soon be meeting. He already has my home address, and just needs a credit card number! Needless to say, mom shut that shit down with a quickness. Our family computer was moved from an office and into the living room where everyone could see, and I was not allowed to use it after my parents went to bed. I will forever remain catfished by a Bass. -Jaime, 39)
Between 2009 and 2013, I had a friendly (not romantic) relationship with a woman on Twitter named Sidney. It started when one of my friends retweeted her. I followed her because she was easy on the eyes, and a fellow Washington Redskins fan. She followed me back, and out of the blue gave me her phone number, told me what street she lived on, and offered me free tickets to a Redskins game, entirely unprompted.
I was supposed to go the game with Sidney, but her mother died the night before. She had to fly to North Carolina for the funeral, so she transferred the tickets to me instead. The tickets were real, I went, and had a great time. A little while later, she invited me to come to another game with her. Again, she sent me the tickets, and I went to go meet up with her, but couldn't find her. When I finally got in touch, she said she'd already left.
Still, we became good friends. We chatted often about life and sports. I remember she said she was a medical student at Johns Hopkins and a huge Cypress Hill fan. She claimed to have met B-Real at a paintball event, and I believed her after seeing a tweet he sent her wishing her a happy birthday. I didn't think she was anyone other than who she claimed to be. Sidney had a ton of pictures on her Twitter, even had a website! I spoke to her on the phone, and she had tons of followers on Twitter. Yeah, every time we tried to meet up something would happen, but I just figured she was a flake. She called in a lot to a Redskins podcast I listened to, so I assumed they had met her at least once.
Then in late 2012, the hosts of that podcast accused her of being a scammer. She randomly locked her Twitter account, and changed her handle slightly so no one could mention her. Around this time, I mentioned casually to a friend on Twitter I was starting to suspect her of being a catfish. A couple of weeks later, this story dropped on NFL.com.
Apparently, "Sidney" had been catfishing Redskins players as well as fans, sending them slightly doctored pictures of adult film star C.J. Miles. Although I have no real desire to meet her, I would like to understand why she did all of this. I guess I get catfishing players from your favorite team, but why catfish me just to give away free Redskins tickets? I guess I got off pretty easy! -Tolu, 31
I was a professional catfisher. It's a hobby now, but I used to work with the people who founded Perverted Justice, catching pedophiles. Since 2015, I've been operating primarily on Twitter and Kik, opening accounts pretending I am 12, 13 or 14 years old. Pedophiles search for young kids with open DMs, so I often get male pedophiles sending pictures of their penises to my inbox.
I present myself as a child who is lonely, dejected, and wants positive adult attention. Sometimes I say that my father is dead, if the conversation presents the opportunity. Or, I can simply let them take the lead of the conversation, as most pedophiles desire: They love to be in control. As they talk, I look for things that they're interested in. Very subtly, I let them believe that they control me, so they'll do something illegal, like arrange to meet up for sex or reveal they have a stockpile of child porn.
So far through Kik, I have reported something like 200 pedophiles, and I've seen at least four of them in the news after they were caught thanks to my tips. There are so many, but one stands out. There was a woman (an actual woman), who thought I was a 14-year-old boy. She told me she wanted to play 'pretend' with me, in which I would be her little brother, and she would be the older sister. The fantasies involved sexual mutilation, and soon she began sending me pictures and videos of her masturbating on camera. She and her boyfriend even tried to make arrangements for me to come up to Canada (where they lived) so I could impregnate her while her boyfriend watched, which I've learned throughout the course of my work is a very common pedophile fantasy.
I continue to catfish these people because I don't know how else to protect children. I've tried to raise money for charity efforts to aid children but it doesn't do much, so instead, I pose as a child in order to report pedophiles to the FBI through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. So far I've gotten a few child porn rings busted, so that feels nice. -Margaret, 30
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