Leona O'Neill

Leona O'Neill has been a journalist in Northern Ireland for over 20 years working with, among others, the Belfast Telegraph, Sunday Life, Daily Mirror and the Irish News. She is also a news reporter on Q Radio, a weekly columnist with the Irish News and a commentator for the BBC. She is a mother of four children - two of them teenagers - and as such is also a full-time professional worrier.

Ten years ago had you looked up the term ‘catfishing’, Google would have thrown you up some literal description of fishing for actual catfish, and perhaps a nice shot of a man in wellies with a rod on the River Foyle.

In this modern era the term has taken on a completely new meaning. Catfishing in the digital age means to lure someone into a relationship by means of a fictional online persona. And with the increased popularity of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and dating sites such as Tinder, the phenomena is certainly becoming more and more common.

There are so many platforms that connect us and bring us together, but can we really be sure who we are talking to? In truth, the answer is most definitely no.

Unfortunately there is no end to the methods fraudsters will use to dupe people into giving them money, or indeed manipulating people into friendship or romance and then abusing their trust, being offensive and just generally hurting them.

Catfishers tend to steal other people’s photographs from their social media platforms, set up an account or several accounts on various platforms with the stolen identity and just basically fake a life – baby photos, holiday snaps, pictures of nights out with friends, the works. 

The anonymous nature of the internet allows catfishers to create an entirely fictitious identity and say whatever they want with your face and name put to the often extremely nasty comments. 

Psychologists say that people who catfish score highly on the dark triad scale, a system which rates people’s narcissism, psychopathic tendencies and pleasure in manipulating people.

Catfishing allows an individual to manipulate another person anonymously and gain control and power over them in a way that they don’t have to deal with the consequences.

Just last month a woman from Northern Ireland was swindled out of more than £300,000 in an online romance scam.

In this particular catfishing incident the woman was befriended by a man on Facebook three years ago and a relationship developed. After three months the scammer asked the woman to pay money so his children could be educated in England. She was then asked for money in relation to investing in both Ghana and Dubai. The woman believed the man’s stories and, over the course of three years, she sent a total of £300,000 to different accounts at his request.

Chief Superintendent Simon Walls said romance scams and catfishing are significantly under reported because people are simply too embarrassed to say they have been scammed in a romance fraud. But he urged anyone who has been a victim to report it to police.

“No matter what type of scam it is, and the different methods employed, the one common element is that scammers will go to great lengths to trick people and take advantage of their vulnerability and good faith,” he told me.

“Romance scammers don’t prey on a specific gender, sexuality, race or age. They target everyone; just don’t let it be you. Don’t let yourself become a statistic. Protect yourself if you want to use the internet in search of love or companionship.  Start off with a reputable website. Look out for someone asking lots of questions, but not giving any detail about themselves. Don’t ever hand over any money. Never let anyone you don’t know or trust transfer money into your bank account.” 

He appealed to the public to be on their guard and not to let themselves become a statistic. 

Tricksters know all the scams and will often communicate with victims in a convincing manner. Guarding your personal and banking details is essential. Never ever disclose them to any unauthorised person or allow anyone access to them via your computer.

Last month it was announced that schools will teach students how to be more resilient to catfishing, fake news and other online dangers.

The Education Secretary Damian Hinds said that the guidelines will combine teaching on relationships, citizenship and computer to make pupils aware of false advertising and fake profiles.

“It’s based on the premise that if you really understand the technology, you’re less likely to get used by the technology,” he said. “Then even when the technology changes, your knowledge is somewhat future-proof.”

I couldn’t agree more. We always have to be one step ahead of the scammers and there is no better place to start than at school.