Woman checking her phone for messages

Catfishing and Authentic Profiles: Meeting your online friend in person

6 min read

While the internet has provided us with incredible opportunities to connect with others around the world, catfishing and fake social profiles remain a problem. So how can you stay safe while meeting online friends IRL?


With the birth of widespread internet in the home came the chat room. As a pre-teen, I was obsessed with a CD-ROM game that had a choose-your-own-adventure style where you collected gemstones. This was pre-Google, so this website was one of 10 that I visited regularly (feel free to guess how old I am). On their website, they had a chat room that I would frequent. I would chat about the game, my friends, and my interests which included: boy bands, nail polish, and bell bottom jeans. 


I ended up bonding with one of the other girls in the chat room (I’m sure her screen name was something like butterflyglitter225) and we would arrange times to be online and chat together. We even spoke over the phone. Fortunately, butterflyglitter225 was exactly who she said she was - a 12-year-old girl living in the U.S. However, the situation could have ended very differently...


Nowadays, you probably wouldn’t let your pre-teen chat with a stranger on the phone (it was the 90’s I guess?), but the increased efficiency of the internet has opened up a world of possibilities for us. Gone are the AOL chat rooms days, but in its place are apps that help us meet and find new friends. We can connect with people across the globe who share our unique interests, or we can even find friends within a 20-minute walk from us; today it’s even commonplace for marriages to start with a right swipe! But like Spiderman will tell you, with great power, comes great responsibility.


At Panion, we believe that it’s our responsibility to uphold the values of our community - and having users help us maintain the standards we believe in is vital to our growth.


Here’s how we’re working to cultivate a safe and supportive community, how you can help us, and a few tips on how you can keep yourself safe - no matter where you are online. 


Don’t catch a catfish 


If you’re not familiar with the term ‘catfish’, do yourself a favor and watch the documentary or TV show (both of the same name, Catfish) right away - it’s a wild ride. The premise of the show revolves around people who create fake online personas. Unfortunately, this can happen anywhere online, from Instagram, to dating sites. 


While the intentions of a catfish can range from immature trolling to something a little more malicious, your time and feelings are valuable and shouldn’t be subjected to dishonesty. 


Person outdoors with fishing rod
When you go fishing for friends, you don’t want to catch a catfish! Photo by Clark Young.


Dishonesty is not what a true friendship makes and Panion does not welcome people who take advantage of the openness of our community. We are stopping it head-on by tracking false profiles who try to infiltrate our community.


We also ask for your help in upholding the values of our community. If you see something suspicious, say something. Panion allows you to report and block profiles that you suspect may not be accurate. If you report fake profiles on Panion, Facebook, or other apps, you not only keep yourself safe, but you keep our community clean for beautiful and real friendships to blossom. 


Spotting a catfish


Most of us have a finely-tuned intuition, but we may not always pay attention to it. However, understanding some of the red flags that accompany catfishing situations can help you keep yourself, and others, safe.


When chatting online through social media, apps, or other groups, take note of the other person’s behaviour. Do their stories seem a little too good to be true? Or perhaps a little too unrealistic or unbelievable? Feel free to ask questions about their stories and make sure their answers line up and make sense. 


Do they avoid video calls due to emergencies or hide their faces because of faulty technology? Do they avoid using their voice to communicate? These are all telltale signs that a person might not be who they say they are. 


Do your research


If you suspect that the person you are chatting with may not be who they say they are, there are tools to help you figure out the truth. A good old fashioned Google search can be a good place to start.


Person looking at Instagram account on phone
Be sure to do your research and check out your online friend’s social media profiles. Photo by Erik Lucatero.


When chatting with someone online, I always ask to check out their social media.Does this person’s profile only feature the same photos that they used on their profile? Do they only have a handful of followers / friends? Does no one ‘like’ or comment on their photos? If you’re answering ‘yes’ to most of these questions - it might be an indication that you should end the online relationship. 


Lastly, I suggest reverse image searching. This may seem a little next-level detective work but it’s actually very easy and useful to determine how truthful someone may be. Tools like Google Search by Image and Tineye take photos and run it through all the pages of the internet, creating a search list of every other place that the image appears. If you find that the image appears on many different profiles, all with different names, or if you find that the image appears to be a headshot, stock image, or model photo, it’s a sign that they have not been 100% honest.


Meeting up IRL


It is safe to meet new online friends in person, however it is always suggested that you take necessary precautions. Keep your first meeting public. Arrive to the destination independently and it’s usually best to decline any rides. If going to a second location, I suggest to go together via public transport or taxi. Let a friend know where you are going and who you are meeting with.


People sitting outside at a cafe
When meeting new friends, public places are safe places! Photo by Robert Bye.


If I am going on a date with someone that I met online, I send the meeting time and place to a friend. I also arrange to text a friend a specific keyword before a certain time and let them know that if I do not text before that time, it means something is wrong.


Going into a friendship a little cautious may feel counterintuitive, but being on guard doesn’t mean you can’t be open with your new friend; after all, trust is required to build friendship. It’s important to remember that while you can approach with caution, with a little research you can feel confident in your friend’s authenticity. When it comes to any relationship, listen to your gut and act on those feelings - if you’re getting catfish vibes, understand that you’re feeling that way for a reason. Meeting a new friend online can be super fun - just remember to be smart and be safe.


— Rosie,  A Very Real Online Person

Rachel 'Rosie' Young
Rachel 'Rosie' Young
Rachel ‘Rosie’ Young is a writer and yoga teacher who explores the globe as a digital nomad. A former public relations executive for several Fortune 500 Companies, she now shares her philanthropic messages and yogic teaching via online journalism and directly to remote communities across Central and South America.