By NATALA HAWK
It’s 9pm on a Friday night. I’m on the couch at home, eating a caramel slice and watching a TV show in which an American girl has flown across the country to meet up with her long-distance boyfriend.
The girl’s name is Jen. She is an 18-year-old high school student. Her boyfriend’s name is Skylar Hazen, and he is a 22-year-old university student.
The pair met on an gaming site and have been chatting online ever since. Their conversations look like that of any other pair of lovestruck teenagers. They call each other “babe”.
They’ve never met each other in person, but Jen has two pictures of Skylar, so she knows what he looks like. She wants to meet up with him, but he says he’s too busy with studying to find the time to see her. Eventually – after much persuasion – he agrees to let Jen fly over and visit.
So Jen gets on a plane. She does her hair and her make-up and wears her best outfit. She turns up on Skylar’s doorstep and calls him to let him know she’s outside.
There is no fairytale ending to this story.
Because Skylar Hazen doesn’t come downstairs to meet her.
Skyler is actually a guy named Bryan, who is short and balding, with a shaved head. Bryan couldn’t look more different from the Skylar in the photos – a man who is tall, tanned, with a full head of hair, sunglasses, a huge smile.
Bryan admits that he found the real Skylar Hazen online, and stole his identity to use as a cover-up to seduce many women at once, online.
The real Skylar Hazen has absolutely no idea that Jen even exists.
Bryan admits that he has no feelings for Jen. That he took up his Skylar persona to “pick up his game” and learn how to talk to women. How to flirt with women. How to make them love him.
Welcome to the filthy world of catfishing, where online identities are stolen, invented or adapted. A world in which you can never quite be sure who is on the other end of that computer screen, calling you “babe” and listening to you spill your deepest, darkest secrets.
It’s a phenomenon that’s been happening since the dawn of the Internet, and has steadily become increasingly common. However, the term “catfishing” was only coined after a 2010 documentary, called Catfish, was created by filmmaker Nev Schulman.
26-year-old Nev entered into a relationship with a 19-year-old woman named Megan that he’d met online, via Facebook. He also developed friendships with Megan’s mother, Angela, and her younger half-sister, Abby.
Megan had a Facebook page with photos of her all over it. She would send him songs that she’d recorded herself singing. They’d have phone sex. They’d exchange sexy text messages:
Megan: My body is craving you tonight
Schulman: What exactly would you do if you had me there?
Megan: Id have you in the tub with me between my legs. Id kiss you on the neck and whisper in your ear begging you to make love to me
Schulman: begging is something you wouldn’t have to do … in fact im willing to bet if anything youd have to beg me to stop
But then the lies began to emerge. Nev started to see inconsistencies in Megan’s story.
You can see where this is going, right? Nev went to Megan’s house to meet up with her. Megan wasn’t there – only Angela, Megan’s mother – was.
The good news was that Megan did actually exist. The bad news was that she’d cut off contact with the family years ago. She hadn’t been talking or texting Nev – it had been Angela all along.
Angela was running several fake Facebook profiles, including Megan’s, and also posing as Megan for phone sex and text messages.
In the movie, Nev speaks to Angela’s husband, Vince, who tells Nev a story about catfish:
They used to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China. They’d keep them in vats in the ship. By the time the codfish reached China, the flesh was mush and tasteless. So this guy came up with the idea that if you put these cods in these big vats, put some catfish in with them and the catfish will keep the cod agile.
And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank God for the catfish because we would be droll, boring and dull if we didn’t have somebody nipping at our fin.
Nev got inspiration from that story, and named his documentary “catfish”. A new phrase was born. And with it, a new TV show was born.
It’s also called Catfish, and is hosted by Nev, who – along with his partner-in-crime, filmmaker Max Joseph – has made it his life mission to find out if other people out there are also being catfished.
Every episode features a different story. There was the episode I watched, about Jen and
Skylar Bryan. But there are so, so many more. Jarrod and Abby (the blonde-haired Abby is actually an overweight Melissa with a self-esteem problem). Tyler and Amanda (Amanda is actually a teenage boy, named Aaron). Joe and former Miss United States Teen 2003, Kari Ann (Kari Ann is a girl named Rose, who went to high school with Joe and always liked him, so developed a faux online personality).
The stories don’t end there. There are thousands of others online. People that have been scammed for money. People who have been scammed for company. Or people who have been scammed for no apparant reason at all – such as Alan, the guy who chatted regularly with a girl whose screenname was “hkouser”. Her actual name was Holly. She had a Facebook, a Tumblr. She called him regularly, but never wanted to meet up with him.
After a lot of fighting with Holly, Alan stopped speaking to her. But it wasn’t long before another gentleman contacted him to ask about Holly:
He did some of his own digging and found an article in The OC Register about a young woman, first name Holly, who’d been killed near Seal Beach trying to cross the highway. And the picture they used was of “hkouser.” I wanted to puke.
I wanted to puke up all the nice things and the airy anecdotes and the compliments and the butterflies I once had, now dead and deteriorated like wet wilted flowers, onto the floor in front of me, and take stock of my gruesome insides, my shame-coated hopes, wishes, all of the idiotic efforts I’d made.
He never found out the real identity of “Holly”. All he knew was that they had stolen the identity of a dead woman. He is not so much hurt as he is embarrassed.
“I wanted to be wanted and I wanted love, or a pathway toward it. And for that I will never laugh at the expense of the catfished,” Alan wrote. “The search for romance and the destruction of one’s loneliness is, in my eyes, still a brave and worthwhile quest.”
Nobody is safe. Catfishing doesn’t just happen to single mothers or lonely old men or gullible teenage girls. Take, for example, mummy blogger Carrin Jade. She posted a picture of her son online, wearing a pink t-shirt.
A stranger then took the picture, claimed it was their son, and commented with a story about how the pink cast had been chosen in support of breast cancer awareness, despite a nay-saying doctor.
The story was completely made-up – and yet it went viral. 40 other blogs wrote about the little boy’s story, not realising that it had been fabricated by a woman who wasn’t even his mother.
The catfishers tell their stories, too. Each of them have different motives. Some are lonely. Some are mentally disturbed. Some are just bored. Some consider it a social experiment. Take, for example, the story of one female catfish who wrote her experiences up for XO Jane:
Every few months, a new identity was born… I had folders with information about each person, passwords to accounts I had made about them, lists of things I had told people, I archived most conversations for reference purposes. I wouldn’t want to get any storylines crossed, after all.
My experiences felt more like interactive story telling than strictly “catfishing.” I was pushing the envelope, seeing how far people would go for companionship, even if only over the Internet. It almost felt like a game of finding what the deal breaker was for people.
So. How can one avoid being catfished?
It really all comes down to common sense. If you meet someone online, and they seem too good to be true – they probably are. Don’t give out any of your personal information, such as your address or bank account details.
Don’t go too long without actually meeting them – if not in a public place, then via Skype. And don’t be scared to play a bit of private detective via Google. Google is your friend.
Have you heard of, or experienced catfishing? Have you ever been a catfish?