On a November evening last year, 20-year-old Suvarna, a Toronto resident who didn’t want her last name used, thought she was going to Snakes & Lattes in downtown Toronto to meet a man whose personality was “screaming out” her type. Little did she know that her ex-boyfriend was waiting there for her instead.
“I stick my head through the door, and I see my ex just sitting there and I was looking around for the face that was on Tinder,” she said.
Suvarna thought she had coincidentally run into her ex-boyfriend until she saw him “laughing hysterically.”
“I’ve been bamboozled,” she thought to herself at that moment. Later, she learned what had happened.
Shortly after their break-up, her ex-boyfriend created a fake Tinder and Instagram profile and talked to her for several weeks, pretending to be someone else. In the language of online dating, she had been “catfished.” After a few words, Suvarna left the café.
The Urban Dictionary defines a catfish as “a fake or stolen online identity created or used for the purposes of beginning a deceptive relationship.”
It is a pop culture phenomenon and a growing problem in the world of online dating and apps like Tinder.
Catfishing is a form of romance scam. Even though fewer than five per cent of victims file a fraud report, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC) says romance scams account for the highest dollar loss of the many types of fraud it tracks. In 2018, there were 1,075 romance scams reported by 760 victims who lost a total of more than $22 million.
The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre has revealed they don't have a high volume of victim reports on romance scams, however, in terms of dollar loss, it's their number one report. Some of these scams are carried forward through catfishing. #catchacatfish #CJRL715
— Remi Stephanie Rozario (@rozario_remi) March 26, 2019
Suvarna said people on dating sites can be vulnerable to manipulation. “You don’t really take into consideration that this person can’t be real, because they’re there for you emotionally,” she said.
Gerald Cupchik, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough, compared catfishers to con artists. He said social media create layers between the real and the virtual, allowing for the creation of false identities and fabricated back stories.
“The beautiful thing about the internet … is it provides better camouflage,” he said.
Jessica Gunson, acting intake unit manager at the CAFC, said that the first hint of a potential catfisher is whether or not they are willing to meet in person. The catfisher may indicate that they are normally located near the victim but are currently working overseas, so they are unable to meet, she said.
If someone’s going to rob you, you’re not going to stand there and hold the door open…
“The first red flag that we see here is that you can’t go and meet the person face-to-face,” she said.
Gunson said the correct way to deal with such scammers is to “recognize, reject and report” them to authorities. These incidents should be treated like any other crime, she said.
“If someone’s going to rob you, you’re not going to stand there and hold the door open and wait to see if they’re going to steal your stuff. You’re going to close the door, you’re going to call the police,” she said.
To verify if someone you meet on the internet is being truthful, you should ask more questions, find out more about the person and ask for their Facebook or Instagram, Cupchik recommends.
“The goal really is to educate people to avoid the hustle,” he said.
When Suvarna first looked at the Instagram profile of the man who betrayed her, she mistakenly ignored the biggest red flag: there were only a few posts, all uploaded on the same day. Her personal experience taught her to be more skeptical about people she meets on the internet, she said.
“On social media, someone’s actions and mannerisms are all filtered out,” Suvarna said.