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Sunday, 05 Jul 2020

The emotional impact of online romance scams and catfishing

By Dr Becky Spelman

As so much of our life is now conducted on the internet, it is not at all surprising that nowadays many of us meet our romantic partners online—and lots of really wonderful relationships start that way. But the dark side of internet dating is that it is extremely easy for people to scam others, or to pretend to be something that they are not (catfishing), for the purpose of personal gain.

The term “catfishing” is used to describe someone who sets up a fake identity online, generally with a photograph of someone else as their avatar. Using this fake identity, the person can set up profiles on dating apps or websites, and develop an online relationship with the person they meet. A typical scenario would involve someone presenting themselves as a very attractive young female, who is interested in developing a relationship with an older man—but the roles can also easily be reversed.

Often, but not always, catfishing is done with the intention of financial gain. In other words, the catfisher pretends to be someone they are not, with the intention of persuading their victims to part with cash. They may offer the prospect of sexual contact at a later stage, or some other sort of perceived benefit. Frequently, they will maintain their identity for as long as they need to in order to obtain the money they are looking for, and then simply disappear, deleting their account and ending all contact.

In other cases, people may engage in catfishing with the intention of gaining sexual access to their victims by pretending to be someone else. They may present themselves as wealthy and attractive individuals online and then lure their victim to meet them in real life, in the hope of gaining sexual access or even assaulting them.

Once a scamster has been exposed, people often wonder how they could have been so naïve. In retrospect, it is easy to see the warning signs—but at the time, it is not so obvious. One of the reasons why is the phenomenon of the sunk cost fallacy. In other words, the more we invest (emotionally and/or financially) in someone, the harder it can be to let go of the fantasy that one day we will have a relationship with the person who is representing themselves in such an attractive way.

For people who have been fooled by catfishers or scam artists, one of the greatest problems can be the sense of shame or humiliation associated with having been tricked. Sometimes, victims are too scared or embarrassed to even contact the authorities and report what has happened.

For anyone who has found themselves in this sort of situation, it is essential to remember that it can happen to anyone. People who engage in this sort of fraud have usually been doing it for years, and they know what they are doing; they seek out people’s vulnerabilities, and take full advantage of them.

Anyone who has been fooled in this way is likely to have to deal with complex feelings of hurt and shame. It can be difficult for them to trust again. For many, therapy is an important part of healing.


For help with the issues discussed in this article speak to one of our therapists here at Private Therapy Clinic for a free initial chat or to make an appointment.


Colleen M. Koch, “To Catch a Catfish: A Statutory Solution for Victims of Online Impersonation,” University of Colorado Law Review 88, no. 1, 2017, 233-[xvi].

Reichart Smith, Lauren; Smith, Kenny D.; Blazka, Matthew. “Follow Me, What’s the Harm: Considerations of Catfishing and Utilizing Fake Online Personas on Social Media.” Journal of Legal Aspects of Sport. 2017, 27, 32-45.

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