​Ask Dr. Nerdlove: I'm Worried My Girlfriend Doesn't Actually Exist

Hello, Internet! Welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only dating advice column that knows what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like this.

This week, we've got a twisted tail of online romance where stories aren't adding up and there's more going on than meets the eye. It's a reminder why one of the most important rules in online dating is "trust, but verify."

Let's do this thing.

Hey Doc,

First off, I'll let you know that I'm not exactly looking for love. I'm looking for solid, healthy connections with other people, but the romance and sex parts are totally optional. That's part of why I think I'm in this pickle.

I'm something of a D-list internet celebrity and one of my "fans" recently started DM'ing with me on Twitter. I actually thought they weren't such a fan, as they've made some very insulting, dismissive comments towards me in the past. Looks like I was wrong, as they've DM'ed me about every day for the past month, almost always with romantic overtones. Sometimes graphically sexual.

That's fairly dangerous stuff for me. If things go sour, they could easily try to use or past exchanges in attempts to make me look bad, exploitative, gross, etc. I've kept that in mind as we've exchanged some relatively sexually/romantically charged DM's, but I've made an effort to not be too explicit on my end, to make it clear that I have no designs on this person, and to focus on the fact that I'm just flattered that they have this internet crush on me. In response they've sent me pictures, told me they fantasize about me all the time, think I'm great, etc. It's the kind of thing that seems totally harmless until that day when it suddenly isn't.

I want to prevent that day from happening. I've also grown to care for this person, but I can't put a real name to what "kind" of caring I feel for them, as I've never met them in real life. I also suspect that they may not be representing themselves honestly. I've suggested that we talk on the phone, talk on Skype, or meet for coffee. All of these offers have been turned down, with the explanation being that I am so irresistible that if they met me in real life, they wouldn't be able to contain their desire and would burst into flames. They don't trust me enough to take that risk, and they aren't sure they ever will if all of our interactions remain online.

I've also asked them to take a quick non-sexual selfie of themselves and send it over. The request was ignored. They've sent me plenty of pictures of themselves, but none spontaneously. They've all been older pictures with them out on vacation, etc. Stuff that would be very easy to pull off of a random person's facebook and use as counterfeit.

I've addressed the fact that I suspect that they may not be who they claim they are. They were insulted, and got upset that I didn't trust them. I also told them that I didn't really care who they were, that regardless of who they are physically, I've come to care for them emotionally and would accept them either way, just maybe not romantically. Their response was that they only want to be in my life if it's romantically — that friendship will never be an option because their attraction to me is too strong. If there is a such thing as the "boyfriend zone", I'm in it.

If my goal is to maintain a healthy relationship with this person that's based around mutual constructiveness and care, what's the best move to take from here? I certainly don't want their crush on me to prevent them from being interested in other people (something they've told me is definitely happening) but I also don't want to cut off a connection that has the potential to be healthy. This person presents as a woman around my age, but they could be a 13 year old boy or a 70 year old man for all I know. I could see this going on for years, which would be fine, but I can't help but feel like that would be a wasted opportunity for... something.

Signed,

Phantom Zone Phil

Spit the hook out of your mouth Phil, 'cuz you're getting catfished.

Actually, I should back up a little.

For those of you who don't know, the term "catfishing" refers to carrying on an online relationship - usually romantic, but occasionally platonic - under a false or assumed identity. More often than not, these are conducted via social networks like Facebook, online games like World of Warcraft or web forums and chatrooms, but many hoaxers prey on lonely people frequenting online dating sites.

The most famous recent example of catfishing is Manti Te'o, a Notre Dame football player who'd been tricked into believing he was in a relationship with a young woman from California who tragically "died" the day before the big game. But many, many people, from celebrities and sports stars to average joes, have been fooled by other hoaxers.

Sometimes the catfishers are indulging in a cruel prank; /b/ infamously created fake OKCupid profiles in order to create an involuntary "Forever Alone" flashmob Sometimes they're just attention-seekers who want to be the focus of everybody's world. Other times, they have legitimate feelings of affection for the person they're fooling but feel that they can't be their "real" selves and construct a more appealing facade. Still other times, they're running a scam on gullible, lonely people; they'll prop up the illusion of a burgeoning romance before running into "financial difficulties" and subtly (or not so subtly) start asking for money.

So, getting back to your case, Phil: you're being played. You're being baited into a relationship that doesn't actually exist because the person on the other end doesn't exist.

The fact that the person on the other end of these DMs and messages is refusing to meet in person or Skype or what-have-you is a giant red flag. Their "excuses" are so transparent that it's almost comical; "I love you so much that I might explode if we meet in person" is dodgy as hell even if it's said with the *purest* of intentions, never mind from someone you've never actually met in person.

Moreover, they're playing on your emotions in order to keep you from asking too many questions; notice how quickly they swing to "how dare you not trust me" as soon as you start expressing some doubts or making what are entirely reasonable requests. It's a way of getting you to back down and even make you feel ashamed for questioning them… never mind the fact that they have said they don't trust you enough yet.

(Incidentally, this is classic abuser behavior; they want you to not trust your own instincts and keep you off balance. It makes it easier to keep you in line.)

Right about now, you're probably feeling pretty stupid. How the hell could you fall for this?

Well, that's the thing. You're a smart guy and that actually works against you in cases like these. There's a reason con artists love smart marks; there's nobody who's easier to fool than someone who thinks they can't be. A catfisher is playing on some very base emotions - we all want to feel as though we're desirable. Having someone - especially a sexy someone - tell us that yup, we're the hottest thing since World War III, feels amazing. We instinctively like people who like us and we're more likely to rationalize away bad or suspicious behavior on their part because we want this to be true.

But here's the thing about online relationships: if you haven't met in person, you're not dating. You may have amazing emotional chemistry and feel like you're soul-mates based on your incredible conversations, and those pictures they send may give you a boner that can be seen from space… but until you meet in person, you're missing the critical physical aspect of dating. No matter how much you may synch with someone in Skype calls and emails, it's no guarantee that you're going to mesh in person. Love isn't just brains, it's blood and flesh and sweat and pheromones and you can't really leave that part out.

So here's what you do, Phil: you cut them off. You don't need to explain, rationalize or otherwise give them advance notice. They're pranking you. Prolonging things just gives them more opportunities to get their hooks in you and try to weasel you into not trusting your doubts. There's no profit in trying to get a confession out of them because, honestly, what will that get you? You have no guarantee that their confession is genuine; there've been plenty of cases where catfishers confess only to serve up yet another fake persona in place of the first one.

So enact the Nuclear Option: block them on every form of social media you have, filter their emails to your trash and generally shut them out of your life. Don't give them another way to get ahold of you.

For future reference, here's how you detect a potential catfish:

Check Their Social Media Footprint - These days almost all of us live our lives online. Damn near everybody has Facebook pages, Instagram accounts, Tumblrs, Twitter handles, Spotify accounts and other digital ephemera. If you have doubts about your online friend's validity, start strolling through their social media feeds. While there will always be people who're less active online than others, the slimmer their presence on social media, the more suspicious you should be.

Google Is Your Friend - You said it yourself: you have no idea if those photos she sent you are of her or from somebody else's account. So find out. Stick those photos through a reverse image search. If you drag them to the search bar on Google Image Search, it'll pull up photos that it resembles. A lot of hoaxers will pull photos from other people's Facebook pages, from ModelMayhem profiles or DeviantArt accounts. Moreover, very few people live undocumented lives. If you've got a name, a city and a school, you've got more than enough to start double-checking their story via Google. This is especially true if they have an unusual career - say, modeling - or if they have major drama in their lives that, wouldn't you know it, keeps them from meeting up with you in public. Muggings, hospitalizations, automobile accidents… these all leave verifiable paper trails that can be found online.

Skype Is Your Other Friend - Video chat is ubiquitous these days. So much so that somebody who simply can't Skype with you is a reason to be suspicious. If they're willing to chat on the phone, but not via Skype or a Google Hangout or Facetime or what-have-you, then you should be wary; it doesn't take much to fake a voice or even get a confederate to stand in for them. If you're especially suspicious, then if they do Skype, you can also arrange to have a friend call them during your session.

Are They Too Good To Be True? Then They Probably Are - This one can be hard. We all desperately want to believe we're special and that the insanely hot bikini model who also plays Pathfinder and loves MC Frontalot thinks we're the bee's knees and has fallen in love with our beautiful soul before meeting us in the flesh. But the more perfect someone is on paper, the more cause you have to be suspicious.

Amazing, unlikely love does happen… but it's not something you'd want to bet the house on. Especially when they've "fallen in love with you" so quickly. This is all behavior that should set your Spidey-sense to tingling.

It's worth remembering: YOU DON'T KNOW THIS PERSON. In your case, Phil, you know that somebody who claims to be a fan has suddenly started love-bombing you. It's tempting to respond to that because who doesn't like feeling loved, desired and appreciated by somebody? But at the same time: YOU DON'T KNOW THIS PERSON. You don't know who they really are, what they're like offline, even what they *really* look like.

Everything about their behavior screams "bad news". Even if they don't have malicious intent, it sounds like someone with some serious issues has latched on to you. Cut 'em out of your life.

Good luck.


Have you ever had an online relationship, only to find out your significant other wasn't who you thought? Share your thoughts and theories in the comments section, and we'll see you in two weeks with more of your questions!


Ask Dr. Nerdlove is Kotaku's bi-weekly dating column, hosted by the one and only Harris O'Malley, AKA Dr. Nerdlove. Got a question you'd like answered? Write doc@doctornerdlove.com and put "Kotaku" in the subject line.

Harris O'Malley is a writer and dating coach who provides geek dating advice at his blog Paging Dr. NerdLove and the Dr. NerdLove podcast. His new book Simplified Dating is available exclusively through Amazon. He is also a regular guest at One Of Us.He can be found dispensing snark and advice on Facebook and on Twitter at @DrNerdLove.