Teach Your Child How to Not Get Caught by a Catfish

At any given moment, there are thousands of predators online, looking for people to exploit.  Children are often the target, but not always.

To realize just how easy it can be to create a fake, but realistic-looking online profile, consider the case of former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o.  He thought that he was in a relationship with a woman named “Lennay Kekau”, only to find out that it was an elaborate rouse. Law enforcement suspects that Te’o was not the only person to fall into this trap.

The very nature of social media often encourages the idea of anonymity.  Very few people, beyond celebrities or politicians, bother to get themselves verified by social media platforms.  The general public rarely bothers, even it is available. At the current time, Facebook does not even offer this feature.

Many social media platforms, such as Omegle and Whisper, don’t offer users a profile, much less a profile picture.  They embrace the idea of anonymity. Anyone can claim to be whomever they choose online, simply by stealing an image online and putting it on their account.  Kik has taken to occasionally having people prove that there is at least a real person using their service to avoid automated accounts, known as “bots” from becoming too common.

Legally, in the U.S., at least, a person can be punished for impersonating another person online.  Assuming they’re caught, which is pretty difficult to do.

However, there is no law prohibiting a person from pretending to be related to someone else.  That means that a predator or jokester can claim to be someone’s aunt/uncle, sibling, or any other relative without the threat of reprisal.  This can lead people into accepting friend requests based on the premise of “innocent by association”.

Chris Hansen, who you may know from his television show, To Catch a Predator, is back with a new show, Hansen Vs. Predator.  The original show routinely presented cases where men tried to “hook up” with young girls for sex.  It was canceled in part because an Assistant District Attorney in Texas was caught in the sting and committed suicide when police came to arrest him.  His family then sued NBC, who settled out of court in a wrongful death case.

Hansen used Kickstarter to fund his new show to protect underage users from online predators.  He found that the situation had barely changed since his previous show was taken off the air. If anything, it may have gotten worse, as more kids are using social media than ever before.

The point is that this would not have been a problem if the teens had taken some very simple precautions.  Online predators live in the darkness, like the trolls from fairy tales who live under the bridge in the dark forest.  Being exposed is their worst fear. They will do anything to avoid it!

To avoid being taken in by a catfish who is trying to prank, groom or even kidnap a child, here are some easy things that they can do:

  • Maintain strict privacy settings on all social media accounts.  Otherwise, predators can learn all they need to pretend to be from the same town or even the same school as the child by simply looking at their profile.
  • Look at their list of friends.  Too few or too many are unrealistic.  Pictures with only a few of the same people in them are a potential concern.
  • Does their account have a lot of typos or grammatical errors in it?  This is especially important if the mistakes are in what should be their native language.
  • Look at the groups that they belong to online.  Again, being a member of too many groups, especially with a very wide range of topics, should raise red flags.
  • Look at their posts, tweets, etc.  If there are only minimal posts, that’s a sign of a new account.  Be warned, though, that many predators maintain multiple accounts, posting over a long period of time to divert suspicion from them.
  • Never speak to someone online that you don’t know in real life and provide them with any personal information.
  • Before you accept a friend request or connection, verify the request offline.  It could very easily be someone pretending to be a friend in real life trying to get access to your profile and contact with your friends and family.  Once someone is accepted as a friend, they use this as a way to make other friends online from their victim’s other online friends.
  • If the app allows for it, have them send a very specific picture – one that is not likely to be faked.  For example, ask for a picture of them holding a pencil in their hand while making the Vulcan salute with their face also in the picture.  The likelihood that anyone would have such a picture on their computer already or could make one up on short notice is very slim. If they won’t provide such a picture, there is a good chance that they are a predator, no matter what reason they give for not being able to give you such a picture.
  • Ask them for a video where they answer a question, such as what is their favorite baseball team or the city they want to visit the most.  Again, their face should be in the video.
  • Take a screenshot from their profile and upload it to the reverse image search by Google to see if the image shows up anywhere else.
  • Even without pictures or videos, if the person on the other end is someone the target potentially already knows, ask them a question that ONLY the real person would know, similar to how websites ask security questions for people who have forgotten their passwords.  It’s not as reliable as a video or picture, but it’s a start.

No predator will want to acquiesce to these kinds of requests.  Just be prepared to reciprocate, proving to them that you are who you say you are.  Turnabout’s only fair.

For additional information on grooming by predators, visit:

https://www.internetmatters.org/issues/online-grooming/.

About the Author

Joe Yeager is the founder of Safety Net of PA, LLC and has been a cybersafety advocate for several years. He is an adjunct professor at Thomas Jefferson University. He is certified by the US Centers for Disease Control in Bullying Prevention and is the cyberbullying advisor to Fifty Shades of Purple against Bullying. He is also the author of #DigitalParenting- A Parent's Guide to Social Media, Cyberbullying &Online Activity, which was chosen as an Editor’s Pick in April 2016.

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