The Universe’s story about a woman who pretended to be a man in order to lure several female BYU students into romantic relationships has caught national media attention.
Exploring the reasons she and others use what’s known as “catfishing” has helped turn the BYU catfish hoax into story ideas for New York Daily News, Cosmopolitan Magazine, Nev Schulman from MTV’s “Catfish” and Dr. Phil McGraw. Dr. Phil has invited the victims and the catfish to be guests on his show since The Universe broke the story. The catfish flew from Texas to Salt Lake City to join seven of her victims and the man whose photos she used for the filming on March 30 and 31. This would be the first time the victims met their catfish face to face.
Dr. Phil regularly invites guests on his show to counsel in the form of “life strategies,” drawing from his experience as a clinical psychologist. The BYU victims’ catfish, a 24-year-old woman who used two separate male identities to dupe 11 LDS women into thinking she was a Mormon man, caught Dr. Phil’s attention because of the psychological and emotional tactics she used to lure strangers into false online relationships.
In a phone interview, the catfish told The Universe she is gay.
“What I did was wrong and unacceptable for those who I have hurt in the process of being comfortable with who I am as a person,” the catfish said, agreeing to tell her story if she remained unnamed. “Being gay and Mormon feels like it’s unacceptable. I catfished people to hide who I am inside, never with the intent to hurt anyone.”
Psychologists Valerian Derlega and Alan Chaikin said in a 1977 study titled “Privacy and Self-Disclosure in Social Relationships” that a person will engage in greater self-disclosure with a stranger, because the stranger does not have access to the person’s social circle. If things don’t work out with the stranger, the traits that compromise a reputation will remain hidden and won’t endanger the person’s place in a social circle.
The catfish used someone else’s identity to hide her sexual orientation, which remained hidden to her social circle when the relationships ended.
A catfish in a separate case hid important aspects of her life when she stole the identity and photos of Bountiful native Kylie Alexander.
Alexander decided to check her “other” inbox on Facebook in November 2014. Expecting to see spam, she was intrigued by a message with the word “catfish” at the beginning from a man in Nevada.
“I opened it, and this man told me that a girl I went to high school with had been using my photos to catfish him for almost a year, and he thought that I should know,” Alexander said.
The man told her the catfish always brought up her “best friend, Kylie (Alexander)” on the phone, despite not seeing or talking to Alexander for more than eight years.
Alexander laughed at first, because she thought the situation was bizarre. Then she grew concerned, then angry.
“She had used personal photos, put my face and info who knows where, and put my friends’ faces who knows where. When you post your photos and stories to social media, you don’t imagine them being used in this way,” she said.
The catfish used Alexander’s bridal photos in her hoax.
“She had told him that her husband had died and was using my bridal photos as an example of what he could look forward to seeing on their wedding day,” Alexander said. “I never would have thought someone would have used those to attract a potential partner.”
Alexander said she confronted the woman and pleaded with her to stop, but the catfish made an excuse.
“She replied saying that she couldn’t believe this was happening again, that for the past year someone has been hacking into her Facebook and talking to other men in an attempt to ruin her engagement,” Alexander said.
According to private investigator Bradley A. Pfanner, of Brad Alan Investigations, catfish often use dramatic or traumatic reasons to excuse their behavior.The BYU victims’ catfish said she couldn’t meet the women, because her sister had a miscarriage. She also said her two best friends died in a car accident.
“I feel they use traumatic excuses because of the emotion it generally strikes with the victim, whether it be amazement, empathy, sympathy,” Pfanner said. “It generally will get them off the hook from having to explain themselves, or why they aren’t able to meet. It seems to take the ‘disappointment factor’ out.”
People who have commented on the first two parts of The Universe catfishing series questioned the intellects of the catfisher’s victims, but Pfanner said when a catfish is able to push the right emotional buttons, red flags are easily ignored. “Victims are not stupid or gullible for not seeing red flags,” he said.
A 2014 study from Amana Kaskazi at the University of Michigan, titled “Social Network Identity: Facebook, Twitter and Identity Negotiation Theory,” concludes that catfishing is more likely to begin on Twitter, where people are less likely to be suspicious of unfamiliar profiles and more likely to make new connections. Twitter users can have multiple handles and may use any name on their profile and handle, unlike Facebook.
The BYU victims’ catfish found a majority of her victims through a Twitter account she created, filled with tweets containing common LDS terminology. “It was basically an account on Twitter which was started with tweets, you know, of different quotes of scriptures, hashtag something Mormon, youth, etc., and you get all these results,” the catfish told The Universe. “I made a Twitter account for spiritual things, and it spiraled out of control.”
BYU student Hilary Hayes, one of the victims, said every one of the 11 victims is LDS. “I don’t think she would have talked to someone if they weren’t LDS. It was really important to her,” Hayes said.
Another catfish, known by his victims as the Hinckley Quote Predator, contacts his prey through dating websites, Facebook and Instagram. The site dedicated to informing others of the scam, hinckleyquotepredator.wordpress.com, said the catfish begins most of his interactions by incorporating a quote from Gordon B. Hinckley, a former President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Music major and site creator Kaylie Stewart said the predator targets many Mormon women. “I think LDS women have a tendency to believe the best in people. It’s such a beautiful, optimistic quality to have, but unfortunately, people take advantage of that,” she said. “We’re looking for that kind, strong priesthood holder, so when he comes along, saying all the right things, you think it’s too good to be true.”
The Hinckley Quote Predator is still active, has 14 known aliases and more than 90 reports filed against him on the phone number investigation site numberinvestigator.com. Stewart said she tracked down 30 active Facebook profiles that belonged to him in addition to his other social media and dating accounts. He often quotes scripture in his profiles and claims to work as either a cancer researcher or a hairdresser.
BYU Women’s Services and Resources Manager Tiffany Turley offered a reason why Mormons are being targeted. “For any woman or man, there’s an innate need to connect with people, be loved and feel wanted,” she said. “I think in the Church, where we have an eternal perspective of relationships, we recognize the importance and significance even more.”
Turley said it’s important to be cautious, but not closed off. “There’s nothing wrong with being a loving and trusting person, as long as you’re smart about it,” Turley said. “It’s important to follow the Spirit and follow your gut. Be open to signs and signals that the person you’re talking to is really who they say they are.”
Pfanner said the easiest way to spot a catfish is by his or her refusal to communicate via webcam. “Ask them to take a selfie with your name and maybe even the date written on their hand,” Pfanner said. “If they refuse to do so or make excuses, then it is pretty safe to say they are hiding something.”
He also said to research red flags and keep them in mind. “We live in an era where it is the norm for many to pretend to be someone they are not, in any capacity, on the Internet,” Pfanner said. “We need to always have that in our minds, no matter how one makes us feel with their words.”
Catfish can turn defensive when confronted by a victim. The BYU victims’ catfish accused Hayes of lying when she confronted her about the hoax, and she attempted to further manipulate Hayes’ emotions. “You’ve both lied to me, about countless of things,” she said in a text message. “I was there for you, whenever you needed me.”
Turley said most people naturally tend to react in a defensive manner when confronted. “If you’re dealing with someone whose tactic is manipulation in the first place, you should expect that they will continue to use that as much as possible to their advantage,” she said. “Protect yourself by expecting their continued manipulation, recognizing it when you see it, and distancing yourself as much as possible.”
Hayes said she thinks the catfish is still trying to manipulate her 11 victims, but the women have distanced themselves. “It used to be hard to tell when she was being genuine or just manipulating us, but we came to realize that she was never genuine, nor does she even know what that means,” she said. “You just have to stay away from situations where you know someone will take advantage of and manipulate you.”