Each time she leaves the house, Aoibhin wonders if it will happen today. When she’s walking down the street, at the gym, buying a coffee — a small part of her is always waiting for a “tap on the shoulder” to come.
I’m waiting for someone to say, ‘Have I been talking to you on Tinder?’” the 29-year-old says. “Or I’m waiting for someone to sit down across from me at the coffee shop and start a date that I don’t know I’m supposed to be on.”
Aoibhin, who is working in Dublin as an actor and producer, was leading a blissfully normal life until last year. Through no fault of her own, and for reasons that we may never understand, she has become mired in an unbelievable story that should spook anyone who in any way exists online.
For the bones of a year, somebody in Dublin has been using Aoibhin’s identity to pose as her on multiple profiles across multiple dating apps. She has no idea why.
And the person who is doing this, who remains unknown to Aoibhin, is not just using her images. The catfish — a term for someone who adopts a false identity for the purposes of online dating — has used Aoibhin’s real name, her real job title, and what appears to be her real home address as part of the bogus profiles that appear like weeds on apps like Tinder no matter how often they’re reported. Whoever the catfish is, they seem to have access to a chilling amount of personal information about Aoibhin.
So much so that, when she leaves her home, the young woman is not only worried about encountering someone that the fake Aoibhin has been talking to, she has a real fear that one day she may meet the person behind the fake profiles themselves.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen when I leave the house. If I’m going to see them. And if I’ll know who they are. And if they’ll approach me. Or, if that’s not their game, what else are they doing? Are they just watching me?” she says.
“How far is this person willing to go?”
Why is this happening to me? Why are you doing this to me? And why am I the person you are using to do this?
The fake Aoibhin, who exclusively targets lesbian and bisexual women, is a prolific online dater. She’s crass and crude, and she is careless with the feelings of the many people she dupes on dating apps. The real Aoibhin, by contrast, hardly used the apps at all before she got into a serious, long-term relationship. The real Aoibhin is warm and funny. But each time she tells this story, she becomes serious and subdued. It’s convoluted and outlandish, and the fact that it has gone on for so long, and that nobody has been able to do anything about it, has sometimes made Aoibhin feel crazy.
This story starts last October, with a message from a stranger. A girl that Aoibhin did not know sent her a message on Instagram, to warn her that someone seemed to be using her pictures on Tinder. “I had a laugh about it,” Aoibhin shrugs.
It is kind of funny, if not even a little flattering, to imagine your images are being used as bait by a catfish. This wasn’t even the first time Aoibhin had heard of this happening — some of her friends had also had their pictures stolen and used on dating apps by duplicitous love frauds. But what was a little unusual about the person stealing Aoibhin’s photos was that they were also using her real name alongside her stolen photographs.
Catfishing, an emerging but increasingly common phenomenon, tends to involve the impersonator using stolen pictures alongside a fake name to avoid being caught out as a fraud. Because the person who stole Aoibhin’s photographs was using her real name, anyone with suspicions about the catfish was able to find the real Aoibhin’s Instagram account quite easily to warn her. And this is exactly what happened, a number of times. A few weeks later, Aoibhin was even contacted by a friend who had matched with the fake Aoibhin on Tinder.
“Again, we were having a laugh about it. We thought it was kind of funny,” Aoibhin says. Intrigued, Aoibhin encouraged her friend to keep talking to the catfish to see what would happen. But when her friend tried to arrange a date with the fake Aoibhin, a particular detail stopped Aoibhin in her tracks. Aoibhin says the catfish had proposed meeting in a cafe “that is literally yards from my home”.
“This was just after lockdown, at that time where coffee shops were the only places that we could go to. I used to go there all of the time to get coffee. It freaked me out,” she says.
It could have been a creepy coincidence. But over the course of the last year, Aoibhin has become consumed by this disturbing story. What started as bemusement turned to engrossment, as she changed from an unwitting victim to an amateur investigator determined to find this catfish for herself. As part of her sleuthing, Aoibhin has confirmed that the catfish has repeatedly claimed to live “in the general coordinates of my home in Dublin”.
“So, they said, ‘I live between this street and that street,’ which is the exact street that I live on. That just blew my mind, that that person could know where I lived. They must have seen me in real life, in person. They must have followed me somewhere, or seen me across the street. Dublin is tiny. So what’s to say that she doesn’t see me, or they don’t see me, on a regular basis?” Aoibhin says.
This ‘fake Aoibhin’ phenomenon had moved well beyond the realms of a joke by last November, when Aoibhin once again received a message from a stranger on Instagram.
“It was not a very happy person on the other end of that message,” Aoibhin says.
Gillian, not her real name, had sent a frustrated and upset voice message to Aoibhin — reprimanding her for what sounded like cruel and cold treatment. After a confused back and forth, seen by Weekend, it soon became clear that Gillian had matched with the fake Aoibhin on a dating app. After things turned sour and the fake Aoibhin ghosted her, Gillian had found the real Aoibhin’s social media profiles and pulled her up on how things ended.
“I don’t think it was aggression; I think it was frustration and upset. I felt really bad for the person on the other end of the message. They sounded really serious,” Aoibhin says. After explaining what happened, Gillian immediately understood that Aoibhin was telling the truth. But at this point, Aoibhin was growing increasingly concerned about what was happening to her.
Aoibhin is in a serious relationship, and was reasonably worried about the impact the catfish could have if mutual friends saw “her” on dating apps. She started to worry about what this rogue avatar was doing and saying, how she was representing or more likely misrepresenting Aoibhin to complete strangers without her knowledge.
The day she discovered that the fake Aoibhin was arranging dates near her home, Aoibhin had contacted gardaí. But she was conflicted over whether or not she should make a statement, unsure if this bizarre internet story had reached a threshold where her safety was at risk. By the time she did go back to gardaí, Aoibhin says the response was weak. It was unclear what, if anything, the authorities could do.
She was sending me photos of myself, and pretending that they were selfies
By the new year, things had intensified. Multiple profiles — all still using Aoibhin’s name and photographs — were appearing. Dating apps like Tinder and Hinge require authentication with a phone number. Aoibhin believes that the rate at which the fake Aoibhin was appearing on apps must have meant that her impersonator had a bank of different phone numbers that they were using for this mystifying project. “[It got to] the point where a profile would come up in the morning. It would get reported, taken down. One would come up in the evening,” Aoibhin says. She recalls how, one day, she took a train back to her hometown and two different fake Aoibhin profiles had appeared on two different apps over the course of that journey alone.
And these were just the profiles Aoibhin was aware of, that she was fortunate enough to have brought to her attention. Aoibhin was left struggling with the known unknown — that someone was out there playing her identity like a role, to innocent and unwitting strangers. Finding out why became a “preoccupation”.
“Why is this happening to me? Why are you doing this to me? And why am I the person you are using to do this?” Aoibhin says.
Aoibhin, by this point, was actively collecting the phone numbers that the fake Aoibhin was using to speak to people once they moved their conversations off Tinder, Hinge or Her and into messaging platforms like WhatsApp.
One day, at a loss to imagine what else she could possibly try, she asked a friend who was talking to the fake Aoibhin on Tinder to give the catfish Aoibhin’s real number. Essentially, Aoibhin was orchestrating a set-up where she could catfish her own catfish.
She changed her profile picture on WhatsApp to a dog (“no way was I stealing someone else’s picture”), and changed her username to a plain initial. For five surreal hours, she exchanged texts with someone who was using her own image as their profile picture.
“She was sending me photos of myself, and pretending that they were selfies,” Aoibhin says.
“I was asking her questions about me, just to find out what she knew. She knew what my job was. She knew where I was from originally. She knew where I lived.”
The fake Aoibhin, who surely had no idea they were talking to the real deal, kept trying to pivot the conversation toward “weird, very explicit sexual things”. Naturally, this made Aoibhin uncomfortable about what kinds of intimate things this person was using her image to say to other people.
At one point, Aoibhin tried to go to the apps to get access to the transcripts of conversations that the fake Aoibhin had had with others — using real Aoibhin’s identity. It was fruitless. Weekend also approached Tinder, the app that seemed most popular with the fake Aoibhin. A spokeswoman for Tinder said: “As you would expect, Tinder is bound by privacy laws and cannot release any user records without the issuance of a valid subpoena, search warrant, or court order. We have a dedicated law enforcement portal where police can request information from us for their investigations.”
What this effectively means is that Tinder will only take action when bad behaviour like catfishing or identity theft is a crime in the country in which it is carried out.
A “friend of a friend of a friend”, who works as a garda, has advised Aoibhin that what is happening to her is not a crime. She says the day she found that out, she expected to be disappointed, but felt almost “liberated”. By that point, she says she had started to feel like she was going crazy. She had asked so many times for help, and it wasn’t forthcoming. It was easier for her to digest the fact that gardaí seemed unable to help, rather than confront the fact that they may have been unwilling.
Weekend contacted the Department of Justice, which confirmed that catfishing “is not a crime in and of itself”.
A spokesman for the department explained that catfishing could only be a crime if it had involved attempts to try to extract money or goods from a victim, persistent unwanted communication, or if the catfish had shared intimate images without consent. As far as Aoibhin is aware, the fake Aoibhin’s activities have not included any of the above and so have not reached the threshold of being a crime.
However, the spokesman said that Justice Minister Helen McEntee was bringing forward a new bill to extend the definition of harassment and to introduce a new offence of stalking. “These new offences will explicitly include “impersonating a person” as one of the actions that may constitute an offence of harassment or stalking. The minister intends to have the Bill enacted before the end of the year.”
Months into this sorry saga, Aoibhin was almost used to having people come to her with stories of the fake Aoibhin’s antics. Another woman, who’d had the misfortune to match with the fraudulent profile, came forward. But this time, she had a name for Aoibhin. For this article, we are going to call her Aisling.
Fake Aoibhin’s prolific activity brought her to the attention of women who had encountered Aisling, and who believed that whoever was behind fake Aoibhin was using similar language and tactics to the profiles that Aisling had been accused of running. Aoibhin was connected with a social club that Aisling had been a member of but had left after she was accused of engaging in inappropriate online behaviour against other members.
Aoibhin ended up befriending a number of women at the club who had experienced online abuse and catfishing, and who believed Aisling was responsible. They ended up forming a kind of alliance, and set up a WhatsApp group where they would compare notes and come up with ways to try to prove if Aisling was behind the fake Aoibhin profiles. Apps like Tinder often state how far away a match is from you. The group of women would sometimes try to triangulate where in Dublin the fake Aoibhin was, based on how far Tinder said the profile was from each of them. It is an imprecise metric, and it’s not proof, but the fake Aoibhin’s location did seem similar to where Aisling is understood to live. Weekend contacted Aisling, who strongly denied having ever catfished anyone and who said there could be “no proof” that she was involved in running the fake Aoibhin profiles. “Aisling” threatened to contact gardaí and a solicitor, and said she would take legal action if her name was published in this article.
I just want to know why, really. It’s actually going to kill me, I think, not to know why. But at the same time, I’m so tired of this
Aoibhin is careful to stress that she does not know and still does not know for certain if Aisling is responsible for the fake profiles. Sometimes she almost hopes Aisling is, because the prospect of a completely unknown person doing this to her is too scary. In the end, Aoibhin decided that the best strategy might be to contact Aisling directly.
But Aoibhin was cautious. She believes that anyone who can spend this much time and this much effort maintaining so many false identities online is most likely not in a great mental health space. She gingerly crafted a text that tried to straddle the line between stern and compassionate. It didn’t make any plain accusations, but it left the door open for a confession. She sent it, and did not get a response. But it did provoke a reaction.
“It didn’t do me very good in the end,” Aoibhin says, dryly. By this point, Aoibhin had been back and forth to gardaí a number of times. Sometimes, she says she was phoning them in tears. The next time she contacted them to follow up on her case, they dropped a bombshell on her.
After Aoibhin contacted them, Aisling reported Aoibhin to gardaí. From what Aoibhin was told, it sounds as though it was suggested that Aoibhin was engaging in harassment. The shock of this latest twist was too much to take, and Aoibhin says she just burst into tears on the phone. Weekend has heard a voice memo that Aoibhin sent to a friend shortly after this phone call, where she is audibly distressed and upset. The revelation shook her, and left her feeling “completely alone”.
“Completely and utterly alone,” she says.
Aoibhin says after the complaint was made against her, she felt that at least one garda stopped taking her seriously and started treating her with “derision”. She says it was suggested to her that she had the wrong person, that she must have some other “enemy”. Aoibhin really struggled with this.
“If that person is not the person that I think it is, then who is doing this to me? Who is this ‘enemy’ that [the garda] described to me? Who is this person organising these dates down the road from my gaff? Who is this person posing as me? Because if it’s not the devil I know, it’s the devil I don’t. And I don’t know what is going to happen to me then,” Aoibhin says.
This leaves Aoibhin, and the story, facing a fairly unsatisfying ending.
Over the last number of years, catfishing has become its own sub-genre of entertainment — spawning high-production Netflix documentaries, gripping podcast series and salacious American TV shows. Everyone loves a catfish story, and we lust for a redemptive ending. The behaviour of a catfish is a relatively new phenomenon that the rest of us struggle to understand. Everyone wants to know why someone would do this. Aoibhin says that not knowing why is killing her.
But the worst part for her has not been the fear and uncertainty this person has caused her, or even the upset and disruption that it has brought to bear on her life. What Aoibhin says has been much harder to deal with is discovering that if and when this happens to someone, neither the law nor the apps are able to offer them any help at all.
“As time goes on, this sort of activity is going to become more and more rampant. People are going to fall victim to it more and more,” Aoibhin says.
Aoibhin doesn’t have any enemies, any jilted flames or workplace foes. She can think of no reason why this person chose to do this to her. It is possible that those who catfish and impersonate others online could choose to do this to anyone, for reasons that will likely only ever remain known to the perpetrator themselves.
Faced with the harsh reality that there may be nothing she can do, Aoibhin doesn’t know if she has the will to spend much more time trying to get to the bottom of this.
“I think I am going to have to let it go, at some point. I don’t want to, and I haven’t yet,” Aoibhin says.
“I just want to know why, really. It’s actually going to kill me, I think, not to know why. But at the same time, I’m so tired of this.”
“It can dominate your life; you can become obsessed about it. Especially if you think this person is watching you. Every time I walk down the street, I think I’m going to see her.”
https://www.independent.ie/life/my-catfishing-nightmare-im-waiting-for-someone-to-sit-across-from-me-and-start-a-date-i-dont-know-im-supposed-to-be-on-41951747.html My catfishing nightmare: ‘I’m waiting for someone to sit across from me and start a date I don’t know I’m supposed to be on’