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Monday, January 28, 2013

The "Catfish" phenomenon

No, I'm not talking about the actual fish. I'm talking about the term that has become fairly well-known in recent years among those of us online. A "catfish" is a person who creates a false identity online (using fake pictures, and even pretending to be the opposite sex) with the purpose of attracting or seducing others. To perpetrate this sort of hoax is known as catfishing.

This term first entered the lexicon a few years ago when photographer Nev Schulman produced a documentary about his experiences; he'd fallen in love with a young woman he "met" on Facebook, only to find out much later that this woman was actually much older (old enough to be his mother) and married. But it's the recent scandal with football player Manti Te'o that's really thrust the term into the forefront. Allegedly, Te'o was tricked into an online relationship with a young woman named Lennay, and was even led to believe she died of cancer. It turned out she didn't exist -- her pictures had been copied off of a random young woman's profile, and it was actually a man behind the hoax.

A lot of people don't believe Te'o was fooled; they think he was in on it and enjoyed the drama and the attention. "How could anyone be fooled like that? No one's that stupid!" Wellllll... he may be naive. But I believe him. There are some very clever people on the Internet; people who are capable of reinventing themselves, creating new and convincing identities, and keeping the ruse going. And all sorts of people fall for it. Including yours truly.

Several readers who go back a long way with me will recognize this story, but I think it's worth repeating for the newer ones who don't know it. 

I forget exactly when (around 2004-2005); I was contacted on a fetish site by a man I will refer to as C (for Catfish; I don't want to even reveal his proper initial). I was actively seeking a play partner at the time and he sounded interesting, so I exchanged a couple of messages with him on the site, and then we moved to email.

The first red flag popped up in the emails; he started writing elaborate spanking scenarios and stories about us, and I wasn't quite ready for that. And I definitely wasn't ready for the types of photos he was sending. Not full-on dick pics, but stuff like him standing in his kitchen in a bathrobe, and the bathrobe was open. I told him I wasn't comfortable with that, and he stopped.

C was local, so we agreed to meet for lunch. Practically from the minute we met, I knew I'd made a mistake. I simply didn't get the right vibe; I was uneasy. I didn't feel an attraction or any chemistry. During lunch, I did most of the talking, because I was nervous. He was quiet, played more with his food than ate it, and watched me so intensely, I felt naked at the table. 

Later, via email, I tried to tell him nicely that I didn't think we were a good fit, but he got belligerent and pushed the issue. I commented that I didn't like the way he stared at me all through lunch. He came back with, "You're such an egomaniac; you think everyone is staring at you." That was that; I didn't reply. A couple of days later, he wrote me a cajoling, let's-be-friends message. I ignored it. I figured that was the end of it.

Cut to a few months later. On another site, I was contacted by a man named Brian. Very pleasant intro, and he'd attached a picture. Cute guy, at a party of some sort (there were balloons in the background), nice smile. Once again, the messages back and forth on the site, then emails, plus Yahoo Messenger.

We chatted for weeks. He was divorced, late 40s, a couple of grown kids. He sent me another couple of pictures, very vanilla, same attractive smile. He gave me a phone number, but we never talked on the phone. I tried to call him once or twice, but got voicemail. No biggie; I prefer email anyway.

I liked Brian. He was very polite and respectful, smart, knew his way around spanking talk. I told him a lot of personal details over our chats. He said he was super busy with work and didn't push for a meeting in person, which was actually kind of a nice change of pace. I was used to ad guys wanting to meet right away with barely any discussion, and I preferred to take things more slowly. However... as time went by, it was getting a little ridiculous. 

So, about six weeks into this, after a lot of correspondence, I started pushing the idea for us to meet for coffee. That's when he balked, and began saying strange things. "I don't think you'd like me in person." "I'm not the way you think I am." Stuff like that. And of course, I'd insist that I would like him -- what's not to like? He'd then say "OK, soon," but wouldn't commit to it.

(You guys see where this is heading? I didn't.)

One Friday afternoon, before I was due to head for John's, Brian and I were IMing. Once again, he was saying that I wouldn't like him in person, and I was growing more baffled and irritated with that. Finally, he said, "I'm not who you think I am."

The hairs on my arms prickled. "What do you mean?"

He hedged a bit, we went back and forth in the IMs, and then he finally came out with it.

There was no Brian. This was C, my catfish. It had been him all along.

It's hard to describe how I felt, sitting at my computer that afternoon. Sick to my stomach. Disbelieving. Violated. My mind spun, remembering all the personal things I'd revealed to him. "What about the pictures??" I asked.

"My brother-in-law," he replied. Then, as a dig at me, I guess, he added, "Those photos were old. You wouldn't like him now; he's lost most of his hair and really porked out." Nice.

What about the phone number? Oh, wait. Yeah, I always got voicemail. And come to think of it, the voicemail message never gave a name. Just, "Hi, you've reached [phone number]; please leave a message."

"How could you DO this?" I wrote, glad he couldn't see how badly my hands were shaking and all the typos I was making and erasing.

His answer? "It's the only way I could get you to talk to me." And then went on to write, "Don't you see? The man you've been chatting with all this time, the Brian you wanted to meet? That's ME. Brian is me. I'm that same person you liked so much."

"NO," I wrote back. "Brian doesn't exist. Brian was a complete fake, someone you invented. And I don't like you. I don't want to ever hear from you again."

He didn't accept that. Somehow, he truly believed that the end justified the means; it didn't matter that he'd intrigued me with an invented personality. All that mattered was that I had been intrigued, so that made it OK. But it most certainly was not.

What followed after that was some drawn-out online ugliness, which I'd rather not go into here, because it really doesn't matter. The story does have a good ending. Things got so out of hand, C ended up contacting me via email with the header "Please don't delete this." In the message, he requested that we meet for another lunch to talk things out; he wanted to set things right. I didn't want to at first, but he sounded so sincere, I followed my instinct and decided this was on the level. Of course, I discussed it with John and told him where and when I was meeting C. John was expecting to hear from me at a certain time, letting him know I was OK.

At lunch, C apologized to me. Said he was sorry for lying to me, sorry that things went as far as they did, etc. I figured if he was big enough to tell me that, I could be big enough to accept his apology, and I did. In a show of good faith, he gave me his business card, which had his full, real name on it, his picture, his company's web address, etc. 

He tried to be friends, but I couldn't do it; too much had happened. Forgiving was one thing, but I still wasn't completely comfortable with him. Eventually, he faded out of the scene; I haven't seen him online in years. I'm glad we wrapped things up the way we did; it could have been much worse.

What's my point? I'm a reasonably savvy and intelligent woman, and yet I was thoroughly fooled by someone online. So it doesn't just happen to "dummies" or "careless" people. It can happen to anyone. Also, I'm not trying to frighten people, or tell them not to trust any online contacts. I've met most of my tops online over the years, including the best ones like Danny, ST and Mr. D. Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. But do exercise due caution. And if something doesn't quite feel right to you, then chances are, it isn't. As with pretty much everything in this scene of ours, it comes down to following your gut instincts, rather than listening to your head as it contradicts your gut. Or listening to the seductively convincing words from someone else over your own inner voice.

Speaking of Mr. D, he still has pink-eye, even though it's healing. At least we had good timing, sort of -- I was sick at the same time, so we cancelled each other out. But now I'm feeling better, and hoping he recovers QUICKLY!

32 comments:

  1. I thought I was the only person who believe Manti. I saw Catfish the movie, and I've been watching the show, and there are so many people who fall for the same stuff, for months and THEN they call Nev to help them find out. My favorite episode was Kyia (sp.?) and Alyx, because even though there was deception, it worked out so well for them. I've been lucky, I've never had it happen to me. When I first got online I had a guy lie about his age, by over a decade, but he lived so far away that we were never going to meet in RL anyway.

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  2. Despicable! Too bad he couldn't put the time and effort he put into creating a fake personality to improving his own!

    Any spanking relationship involves a great deal of trust... how could anyone expect to build one on such a fractured foundation?

    If there's anything good that comes out of this it's that we can appreciate those in our lives that are good, honest people...

    I'm sorry to hear Mr. D has pink-eye... still! I hope he has a speedy recover... for your bottom's sake!

    xo,
    SC

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  3. Didn't you have two different Mr. C's? Probably my old memory. I remember there was one on SSS that was a different sex and age than what they originally said. YES, be careful. Only meet in a public place. Happy that you got John backing you up. You have too many followers to have anything happen to you. - Hal

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  4. Jen -- I've never watched the TV show, because I detest reality TV for the most part. But Nev's own experience was fascinating (and scary).

    SC -- yeah, it was quite elaborate. I know, in a convoluted way, he was trying to make a point: "See, you like me when you don't think it's me." But that didn't fly at all. And yes, I really do appreciate the honest folks! :-)

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    Replies
    1. I started watching the show because I'd liked the movie he did about his experience, and I had no idea so many people had the same problem. That's why I'm more likely to believe Manti T'eo didn't know about what was going on until December.

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  5. Hal -- hmmmm. I don't recall anyone on SSS. I know there were a lot of sock puppets on there in general, which was one of the many reasons I stopped posting there long before it died.

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  6. Yes, Erica, being sincere is crucial as trust is crucial - certainly no less in cyberspace than in real life.
    You guys get well soon!

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  7. Back in the SIN days I fell prey to this phenomenon on at least two occasions that I remember. It's funny really that for one of them, one that I put a lot of effort in, I was told long before it was too late that I was setting myself up. This included long phone calls and many detailed emails.

    When it came time for the meeting I sat at home and waited for more than a day and listened to the excuses for the delay in arrival. Yep, I was so dense that I was totally fooled. Not only was she a no show, I never heard from her again after that weekend.

    Recently of course everyone on Fetlife was treated to the "Annie Wilkes" character that was created in an attempt discredit me as an individual and to sully my name. Of course it is going to take a bit more than that, lol, and it wasn't really catfishing as this was a guy with an apparent grudge against me.

    I would like to say that I am wiser for the experiences, but I don't know if that is true or not :)

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  8. Erica,

    Thank you for an excellent post. I believe that Manti is a young man who was duped, but also made some bad decisions.

    I think it is unfortunate that people are misled either online or in person. A couple of my vanilla friends have had expereices with Catfish, but usually guys who are trying to deceive someone.

    So, thanks for a very thoughtful post; I hope that your post helps others be more careful.

    Hug,
    joey

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  9. MrJ -- we're working on it! :-)

    Rich -- I really don't think you were dense! We all want to believe, you know? Blech... I remember "Annie Wilkes." Not only was it a man posing as a woman, but a psychotic movie character woman to boot!

    joey -- I hope so too! One of the things I love most about our scene is that we look out for one another.

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  10. Hi Erica,

    When you said, "if something doesn't quite feel right to you, then chances are, it isn't," you dispensed some incredible advice. I can't think of a single time when I acted against my intuition and didn't come to regret it.

    I've been fooled as well, and more than once. It's human nature to want to reach out to another person, especially when they ask for assistance. The lesson I've learned is that fishy stories are generally precisely that. I'll help anyone, but I have no time for games.

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  11. Erica, all I can say is please. please be careful. XXX luv ya.

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  12. Bonnie -- same here. In my early scene days, I talked myself into things that I instinctively felt weren't right to me, because I thought I "should" do them. Had some really crappy experiences because of that. But, live and learn (one hopes).

    Six -- I will. I promise.

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  13. Hi Erica -- OMG i am so glad you are alright,this was so FREAKY and scary,How can anyone pretend to be something that they are not.Thank's for the good advice i needed that,I agree be careful.I already guessed before i read it that this guy Brian really was C cause i had this feeling he was going to be.I am happy you are feeling better,I hope Mr.D feel's better soon so you can get your weekly spanking :-)<3 Much Love and hug's from naughty girl Jade

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  14. Jade -- I'm fine, honey. It was a long time ago. And you guessed before I did!

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  15. This is hard for me because I so respect abd love who you are and I understand what you went thru....but this guy from good old ND is in on this scam. However I can not prove it but he broke one ideal and that is being sincere and honest. He lied and not that he can not be forgiven but he is not sincere; he became part of the scam.

    Unlike you and me, he is for some reason famous and he did in fact benefit from this scam!

    Sorry I so love you, sorry you went thru this buit this kid found out, his team found out and if ND was not blasted in it's final game one wonders were this would have gone.

    Sorry I do do love your blog and you but not with you on ND but so sorry about what you went through!

    Always
    Ron

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  16. Ron -- you know, it's OK to disagree with me. Many do. :-)

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    Replies
    1. I know that just don't want to be a jerk about it!
      Always
      Ron

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  17. Again, great post. This whole thing sounds like something Chris Hanson from Dateline would expose, just to let people know the fakes and or dangers of meeting someone online. Look at this thing about the woman that's suing Match.com...
    Anyway take care,

    Milt

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  18. Quite freaky. I was surprised you agreed to meet him again. I wouldn't have.

    Thanks for sharing this Erica. Hope it helps others.

    Love,
    Ronnie
    xx

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  19. You know I almost didn't read this one because when I saw the term Catfish I was terrified it was going to be about the TV shows where Hill Billies stick their arms in a fish's mouth.

    Now thanks to you I'm much hipper and can am relieved it didn't conjure up images of my redneck neighbors. All kidding a side great article with good advice.

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  20. Milt -- that Match.com story is awful. But I don't see how they can be blamed. They simply provide a site where people can connect; if some psychos join and cleverly disguise it, how could Match have prevented that? (sigh) Another very complicated issue.

    Ronnie -- things had gotten so out of control with this situation, I was desperate to have it resolved, so I was willing to try anything. I had a sense that he was sincere, and sure enough, he was.

    MM -- rest assured. Aside from the occasional disgusted reference to Honey BooBoo, I don't write about stupid redneck reality TV. I can't stand that it even exists! :-)

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  21. Such an important and worthwhile post.
    People can be terribly hurt and damaged by online fraud and deceit.

    I am glad you were able to resolve it and find some peace.

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  22. Abby -- I was lucky in this case. Many aren't, I'm afraid.

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  23. Wait. MY name starts with a C... ;-)

    These stories are more common than anyone cares to admit. Most people likely don't. And if you want more of this sorry train wreck you can check out Nev's series on the subject on MTV.

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  24. Craig -- oh dear. Purely an unfortunate coincidence! :-) I'll pass on the show; if I wanted to watch the dregs of humanity, I'd watch, well, Honey BooBoo.

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  25. When I watch the show I want to hit the stupidity OUT of the scammers. WHY they opt to screw with innocent people is beyond me. They tell sad tales of woe that they're too fat, too unattractive, etc, etc to BE THEMSELVES. I find that pathetic.

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  26. Kelly -- pathetic is exactly the word. They don't feel like they have lives, so they have to invent them. I'd feel sorry for them if they didn't do so much damage to others.

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  27. Fascinating account, Erica. Someday someone will write a sociology of the internet, and this will be the sort of thing they talk about. BTW, I thought you might be amused by this tongue in cheek treatment of the topic under discussion: http://thoughtcatalog.com/2013/i-want-a-fake-girlfriend/

    Karl Friedrich Gauss

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  28. Karl -- oh, thank you for that link! The writer is so spot on, and funny. :-)

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  29. Thanks for defining what the hell "catfish" means! I've seen the term pop up lately and heard reference to a TV show, but didn't know that's what it was referring to. I'm used to the "sock puppet" term online.

    You are right about trusting your instincts and that this kind of thing can happen to anyone. The internet just provides more ways for people to hide anonymously and these things to happen. I'm glad things didn't take a worse turn with you and C.

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  30. Lea -- the term's been floating around for a couple of years, but it really surged to the forefront recently with Te'o thing. I always thought a sock puppet was more restricted to an online forum thing, but I could be mistaken.

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