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faking it

Eight Years After 'Catfish,' People are Still Falling Hard for Fake People Online

Having a fake girlfriend or boyfriend isn't just some middle school thing.

by Sattwika Duhita
09 April 2018, 6:45am

Photo collage and illustration by Dicho Rivan Firman. 

When the hit documentary "Catfish," came out, the world was a simpler place. Sure, you could still fall for a totally fake person you met on Facebook, but back in 2010 we were still two years from Tinder totally changing the online dating game from something that carried the stigma of being an option for lonely hearts to something nearly everyone does, at least for a while.

Today, the term "catfish," is pretty damn ubiquitous, but that doesn't mean we're any less prone to being catfished online. Hell, we might be even more prone to it today. So why would someone catfish someone? And what's it like to get your heart broken by a fake online persona? Sadly, I know the answer to the last one.

My own story of being catfished suddenly came back to me after reading a recent Twitter thread posted by an Indonesian woman named Adora about how she was in a relationship with a fake "boyfriend," for five years. Adora called the man a "faker," but we all know what she was really talking about here—this guy was a catfish.

Back in 2009, I was a victim of catfishing myself, although, honestly, I had no idea it was called that back then. I was in ninth grade at the time, and, through a combination of my own naiveté and lack of understanding about easy it was to create a fake persona online, I fell for head-over-heels with a person who didn't actually exist.

My relationship with this "boyfriend," started out with something innocent enough, a friendship with this girl who was one year younger than me named Teresa. We had one of those near-instant friendships that goes from zero to telling each other everything in record time. So one day, after complaining to Teresa about how badly I wanted a boyfriend, she suggested that I meet her cousin, a guy whose name I honestly forgot, so we're just going to call "Steven" here.

Steven was great, but there was still something off about him. I started to grow suspicious when he was constantly bailing on our dates. He always had an excuse, of course, something about how he needed to go to Australia for medical treatment (he told me that he had a heart problem). After a while, it felt like actually going on a real-life date with him was harder than applying to be a civil servant (if you're not Indonesian, then just trust me—it's hard).

After a while, I decided to conduct my own little investigation, which included calling both his and Teresa's number at the same time, asking to video call Steven, and asking for his home address. Eventually my detective work produced a big break—Steven''s Facebook picture was that of an actor—a handsome, but underrated one, and this guy was definitely NOT my online boyfriend.

It took nine months for the truth to come out. Steven's real identity was Teresa, and she had created the online persona just so she could date me without me knowing about it. I was furious with her and decided to cut her out of my life entirely.

Now, this sad story isn't something that only happened to me. I called up Yohannes Tulus, a 23 year old who told me about a woman he met and fell for on Facebook who ended up also not being real. Yohannes was in high school and the two texted and spoke on the phone for four months before he figured it out.

“I was happy back then,” Yohannes told me. But he became suspicious about three months into the relationship over the fact that he couldn’t call his girlfriend whenever he was at school.

“I became even more suspicious when I called my girlfriend one time and my classmate’s phone rang,” he told me.

He confronted his classmate and learned that she had a huge crush on him and figured that lying on the internet as the only way to win his heart. It's sad on all fronts, right? I feel like I can sympathize with someone who is crushing hard but too scared to tell their crush their true feelings, but I can't get behind how manipulative this whole thing is.

What kind of person actually decides to catfish someone? I tracked down someone who might know the answer.

Jessica Carmeline told me that she catfished people multiple times in the past. She explained that, back in 2011, she pretended to be a different woman online to get closer to man she liked, but felt like couldn't if she as just herself.

“I catfished my own friend," Jessica told me. "We were tight. The only people who know about this was me, the guy, and my best friend whom I just told early this year. It was just for fun. Plus, I was also tired of being his 'back-up plan'.”

So she created a fake Facebook profile and texted him with a new number. She initiated the conversation by pretended to text the wrong person, then just continuing on to ask what he was up to. She kept texting him and their conversation intensified. But then, one day, he got suspicious that she wasn't who she said she was.

“He started to notice because when we were on the phone he could hear my sibling calling my real name,” Jessica told me.

The moment of truth came a short time later. Jessica confessed everything. “I confessed through a text or a phone call—I don’t remember. But I do remember that we didn’t meet in person.”

Some people never really figure out what they were catfished—I mean, Teresa never told me why she did it. But I psychologist Kasandra Putranto thinks it has a lot to do with a fear of rejection. These people pretend to be someone else who is, in their minds, a better person than they are.

“Falsification of identity, such as a person's physical appearance, their past, personal data, et cetera, will always exist as long as people think they aren't living up to expectations,” Kasandra told VICE. And as technology advances, catfishing is becoming easier and easier, she added.

“Technological advances can be misused by manipulative individuals, and at the same time it enables individuals who are not manipulative to become so,” Kasandra explained.

Thankfully, people nowadays are getting better at spotting fakes online. But that doesn't mean catfishing is going away. If anything, it's getting more sophisticated, but the red flags are still the same. Trust me, as someone who has gone through this myself, a person who seems too good to be true and who also never seems to be able to meet you in person, probably isn't even an actual person. Well, I mean of course they are still a person, but they're not your person. You get what I'm saying here. Just take my advice and remain cautious—it's a big, fake word out there.