“Guys this is NOT me! Please could you help and report this account *crying emoji*.” You roll your eyes, ignore their Insta story request and find yourself quietly annoyed that this announcement - accompanied by a screenshot of the low-stakes catfishing account impersonating them - has disrupted your drip-feed of flesh and memes.
I actually keep all my accounts private to try and prevent this from happening because, yes, I’m breathtakingly beautiful and, um, modest. But at this point, anyone attractive with a sizeable enough following seems to have experienced a brush with minor online identity theft. It feels like having a fake account made using your photos has become a badge of honour, the ultimate approval, a sign you’ve finally made it far enough out of obscurity to be imitated - or at least hot enough to be used to scam horny men.
Long-term fans of my immersive journalism will be aware that although I’ve not (knowingly) had my photos used by a catfish, I did once have the dubious honour of being turned into a viral meme. My photos were used as a fake VICE Facebook post with the title: “"How this penniless ketamine dealer is queering homelessness through SLAM poetry – and why I smoked DMT in her garage." I found it all very funny, until I started receiving death threats from people who struggle to use the internet and their cognitive abilities.
“Being turned into a meme is one of my life goals”, says 27-year-old Obi Juwah, unprovoked, when I call him up to discuss his own online identity theft tale. The London filmmaker had stills from a documentary he starred in used for a fake Tinder profile (Jamal, 30). When he was sent a screenshot of the profile by a friend, he went one better than making the obligatory ‘please report’ story. He posted it to the grid with the caption: “This was the exact moment when I finally realised I made it in life and that I am officially better than you!!” Maybe he’s got a point.
“Being catfished… in a weird way, it's acceptance. It's kind of like a nod saying that whatever you're doing is going well, and you appeal to a certain demographic - so much so, we're going to steal your identity”, he says, laughing. “It’s bad, but I do kind of see it as a badge of honour. The only people who normally get catfished are either models or low-key celebrities, people who are area-famous.”
Not everyone’s experience of catfishing is this benign. When journalist Max Benwell received DMs from numerous women telling him someone was using his likeness to send them abusive messages, he set out to find the man hiding behind his face. (He succeeded, sort of.) “I get asked a lot, 'Oh, isn't it flattering?’ People tell me it’s a good thing, but it's like who's the arbiter of this, though?” says Benwell. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but what if the beholder is a slightly sociopathic, lonely guy living with his parents who's really abusive to women? Is that flattering?” OK yeah, probably not. “If someone really hot and cool was catfishing me, I'd probably be more flattered.”
The first question I’d ask if I was selected as an avatar for online abuse is… why me? “People tell me I have a welcoming, smiley face when I’ve asked this question and I’m like, ‘Oh what, so you don't think it's because I'm really hot?’” says Benwell. “I guess the catfish saw something in my face which he thought would help him be more approachable to women - or maybe he just had a crush on me.”
Even though men are around twice as likely as women to have had their identity stolen, according to a recent survey from Nationwide, it can seem like it’s more of a “woman’s issue” on our own feeds. Sure, women are at least more likely to post about it and you’d be forgiven for assuming there can’t possibly be enough steal-worthy photos of guys out there - considering they photograph themselves in the worst angles with an expression that suggests they’ve been taken hostage.
Given the fact society hates women acknowledging (or even just knowing) their attractiveness - as shown by the popularity of that One Direction song - it’s unsurprising that it’s become seen to be more of a humble brag rather than a genuine desire to get a fake profile removed. Everyone I spoke to - albeit good-naturedly! - put on a silly voice and imitated a girl doing a classic ‘please report!’ post. “It's the ultimate win-win in terms of PR, because it's inscrutable,” suggests Benwell. “There’s some use in sharing it with your friends, but then you also get the added bonus of being someone people are impersonating - it's the perfect brag.”
Even VICE's own senior staff writer Katie Way has been catfished. She became aware when a former hook-up texted her saying “congrats”, with a screenshot of a Tinder profile using her photos.
“I was like, ‘Oh, wow, this is kind of like a hot girl right of passage!’,” laughs Way over the phone. She was less flattered when she realised the profile (Amy, 33) was using an age nearly ten years older than hers, though. “Mostly I just thought it was funny, because clearly this person didn't have access to a lot of photos of me, so they’d used my rather unsexy LinkedIn and Twitter profile pictures.” Given the weird, close-and-personal cropping of the images, Way doesn’t imagine too many people were fooled. “And obviously I did Tweet about it, of course.”
For high-level social media personalities (indisputably hot with large followings, you know the ones) it happens so often, it no longer really causes a batted eyelid or warrants a post.
“I've definitely seen Instagram accounts using my photo as their profile picture, but they’re private so I just don't pay any attention to it,” says influencer Hannah Louise Farrington, 29. Her first real brush with a catfish was in the time before Instagram, when someone created their own second life using photos from her blog - outfit shots, pictures of her then-boyfriend and friends (renamed), complete with elaborate posts about what they’d got up to on the weekend. She found the whole thing incredibly creepy, but is aware why she might be a likely candidate. “I'm obviously a person that posts a lot of pictures online and is a ‘known figure’,” continues Farrington. “There's quite a rich bank of content to pick from and create your own second life.”
But not everyone finds it this easy to brush off, especially if the catfish is actively posing as the person whose pictures they’ve stolen.
“I think the first time it happened I thought, 'Oh, how funny - I'm the catfish!’ but later I started to find it weird. You don't know what they're actually doing with your photos” says Zainab, a beauty blogger who’s asked for her name to be changed for fear of online backlash. “There was an account scamming guys in Dubai; an account on Tinder in Nigeria; there's been repeated incidents on Muzmatch [a dating app for Muslim people] where people don't even change the name and talk to men pretending to be me.” This is the tactic that feels most violating for Zainab. “I feel like that’s an attack on me, in a way, because why are you using my image?”
Indeed, though people are quick to feel sorry for the most obvious victims of catfishing - i.e. the ones who’ve had their hearts or bank accounts destroyed - there seems to be less sympathy for those who have had their identities stolen AKA the other victims.
“People who haven't personally experienced it just think, ‘You stuck-up bitch, enjoy the fact that people want to look like you!’,” adds Zainab. “That’s fair enough in many ways, but the dark side of ‘pretty privilege’ is you have to deal with weird idealisation and exploitation of your image.”
At its heart, social media is where we all go to present curated and idealised (if not outright fake) versions of our lives. In a world where status is accrued through how well we’re able to do this, it’s perhaps no surprise that fake accounts now carry their own strangely desirable currency. You’re not a real influencer until someone has made a fake profile of you, right? Oh, and if you see a screenshot of a girl that looks like me claiming to be a “penniless ketamine dealer queering homelessness”, could you report it, please? Thanks!