How to Avoid Being Catfished at Work

March 2022

Text message with mobile phone. Woman texting sms with smartphone Catfish or digital scam. Screen keyboard in instant messaging chat. Macro close up of finger writing. Conversation with boyfriend.

Image: Getty Images

Most of us are familiar with the term catfished, thanks to a documentary and cable TV show about people who engage in romantic relationships based on fraud. What isn’t as well-known are people catfished at work.

Such was the case for employees who took virtual jobs with a British startup and worked for up to six months without receiving payment. Dozens of people who lost their jobs during the pandemic eagerly accepted job offers from a glitzy digital design agency called Madbird. They had Zoom calls with entire staffs and motivating conversations and emails from their charismatic CEO, who went by different names, such as Ali Ayad. His online presence, including an impressive LinkedIn profile, turned out to be a ruse too.

The BBC article on the catfishing scheme is worth the read, explaining in detail how Ayad and perhaps others schemed to have all these employees work long hours to gain new business and never paid them a dime. Many went into debt working for Madbird, believing they would repay loans when payday hit. Even when confronted by a news crew, Ayad maintained everything he did was legitimate and showed no remorse for everyone he’d swindled. Kind of like another man featured in The Tinder Swindler who used women and their money to sustain his lush lifestyle. He too maintains he did nothing wrong.

So, what can you do to mitigate the risks associated with working for someone or some company that isn’t as they appear? (And avoid similar scams like the one we wrote about last year.) You do the same thing as those who wish to avoid being taken by romantic or financial fraudsters: Do your homework and trust your gut.

The limits of online searches

One of the first things people do upon hearing about or meeting someone now is search online to see what pops up with their names. This is how the show Catfish works—taking some pretty simple steps to track down the real person behind an online persona. But the men already mentioned, at least initially, gamed Google, a company that’s come under fire for promoting its own products over others. Then there are reputation management companies paid to bury unflattering information and promote more positive data. All add up to diminishing returns for those seeking reliable data using the popular online search engine.

If you find inconsistent information online, dig deeper the hybrid way. When communicating with anyone at a prospective company, use video conferencing with the video on. If someone won’t, ask why and evaluate if their answer makes sense. Anyone who repeatedly refuses to meet face to face (on-screen or off-) may be hiding something (other than a messy room).

The limits of contracts

Contracts provide some cover, but not as much as you think. It’s expensive to go to court to get a contract enforced. Especially if the company files for bankruptcy to avoid its debts. So, do not think because you’ve signed a deal that both parties will feel obligated. Honest people do, sometimes going to great lengths to follow through on a commitment; dishonest ones cut and run at the first opportunity.

Deepen your intuition

More than anything, use past experiences and those of others to gauge someone’s trustworthiness. I once had reservations about changing jobs after an initial in-person interview with a charismatic CEO; something just felt “off” about the guy and his job offer. I chalked it up to a fear of change when it was deep wisdom trying to pound good sense into my head.

This is common: Taking a new job or establishing a business partnership requires a leap of faith that the fit will be good and the work satisfying. Some stomach butterflies are inevitable. But if the feeling of unease is strong or lingers, your intuition may be telling you something. Here again, do all you can to verify—the company, its leadership and its business-standing in the industry and/or community. This can be tricky if no one knows you’re leaving, but it can save a great deal of grief. Be careful with online reviews on places like Glassdoor. Current employees may have been asked by management to write complimentary reviews to counter one disgruntled employee’s amplified negative statements. (True story.)

In my case, I should have listened to my gut. Within months, my paychecks began to bounce and within a year, the CEO folded the company after owing me and at least two others significant sums of money.

Be on guard

There is so much disinformation being spread, none of us knows for certain who or what to believe anymore. Trust a journalist—a real journalist and not blatantly partisan bloggers/vloggers/social media mavens. Though shrinking in numbers, properly trained journalists report events more evenly and base their information on credible sources. They talk to actual experts, not just pulling quotes from Twitter.

We now live in a world where trust is eroding. We can’t even assume what we see is real and not generated by sophisticated technology. But if you want to avoid being a victim, do your best to protect yourself and carry out your due diligence. Otherwise, you may find that instead of landing a big fish, you become catfish bait.

Thank you for reading this,

Anne