First dates are hard, and Jess was running late for hers.
She was due at Cafe Lounge, a bar in Sydney's trendy Surry Hills, at 6:30 p.m. Rushing home from work at 6, the 28-year-old knew that wasn't going to happen. By the time Jess got to her townhouse, put together a first-date look and caught an Uber to the bar, she was nearly a half hour late.
Jess was meeting Ruby, a 27-year-old she'd matched with on Tinder. Ruby looked like an artsy type, prompting Jess to swipe right. They began chatting on a Sunday. After a brief back and forth, Ruby asked if Jess would join her at Cafe Lounge on Wednesday for a gig. Flattered to be asked out so quickly, Jess said yes.
Jess arrived at the venue just before 7. She saw a woman at the door standing alone, clearly waiting for someone. The woman looked expectantly at her, and Jess thought she had found her date. "Ruby?" she asked. Nope, not Ruby.
"I guess we're both on a first date," Jess joked. "Hope you have a good night!"
She looped around the bar. Despite being almost 30 minutes late, she seemed to beat Ruby there. Jess sat at a table and messaged her date, asking if she'd missed her. "I'll be there soon," Ruby replied. "I'm just getting cash out."
"Who the hell needs to get cash out?" Jess thought. "It's 2019." She went to the bar for a drink and found another table. Sitting opposite her, 5 meters away, were two more women.
They piqued Jess' interest. They talked enthusiastically like friends, but the content of their conversation made it sound like they didn't know each other. "Oh, so you have a boyfriend?" one said to the other. Jess passed time by trying to piece their story together.
As she eavesdropped, Jess was approached by someone. It wasn't Ruby. It was the woman who'd been standing by the entrance when Jess arrived. Her name is Candela.
"When we met before," Candela asked, "did you say your name was Ruby?"
"My name's not Ruby, I'm looking for Ruby," Jess clarified.
"Oh," Candela said. "I'm looking for Ruby too."
Catfishing is internet deception 101. Someone creates a fake profile on a dating platform and woos strangers, pretending to be someone they're not for their own gain. That gain is often financial, but not always.
The term "catfish" entered pop culture parlance in 2010. A 24-year-old New Yorker, Nev Schulman, found himself in a burgeoning online relationship with a 19-year-old from the Midwest, but grew to suspect she wasn't who she said she was. Schulman, his filmmaker brother Ariel and a friend of theirs, Henry Jooste, decided to drive to Michigan to see who was really behind the account. And they brought their cameras.
That 19-year-old turned out to be a 40-year-old housewife, and the trio made a documentary about the fiasco. The woman was impersonating a young painter, using the alter ego as a way of reviving a passion for the arts that she gave up after marrying her husband, Vince. Schulman interviewed Vince, who related internet scammers to, of all things, Alaskan cod being shipped to China.
If live cod are shipped alone, the husband explained, they become inactive during the long journey and their meat ends up mushy and tasteless. Eventually someone realized the solution was to ship cod with predatory catfish.
"The catfish will keep the cod agile," he said. "There are those people who are catfish in life. They keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing. They keep you fresh." The film would go on to be called Catfish, and inspire an MTV show by the same name.
Meeting a significant other through the internet is common these days. Nearly one in five new relationships are struck up online. But just because we're more comfortable with online dating doesn't mean we're more competent at spotting a scam.
Norton, a cybersecurity firm, estimates that one in 10 online dating profiles are fake. Sometimes catfishing is innocuous, or even yields a happy ending. In 2015 a woman named Emma was catfished by a 53-year-old who used photos of a Turkish model to masquerade as a 34-year-old, which led to Emma contacting the real model, Adam Guzel. They're now dating.
Often, it's more insidious. A Minnesota woman was in an online relationship for nearly a year before discovering the man behind the account was actually her abusive ex-husband. He was using the account to stalk her. In Japan, a woman sent $200,000 to a man claiming to be a US army captain stranded in Syria. Norton says $1 billion has been scammed from lonely hearts in the US and Canada since 2015.
"Congratulations, you won a free iPhone. Swipe right to claim your prize." That's Madison's Tinder bio.
After matching with Madison, Ruby was quick to parlay this witticism into a date proposal. "Can I claim my prize at 7 p.m. on Wednesday at Cafe Lounge?" Ruby asked. Madison, a 23-year-old who moved to Sydney from Florida in 2017, said yes. From here Ruby got more suggestive, insinuating how their date night would end.
Four days later, Madison walked to Cafe Lounge feeling unusually nervous. First dates don't usually make her anxious, but there was something off about Ruby.
Part of it was her suspiciously flirty demeanor. But it was also Ruby's lack of social media presence. Instagram and Snapchat profiles often get exchanged in the lead-up to Tinder dates, but Ruby had neither, nor did she offer up a Facebook profile.
Madison recognized the warning signs, but was comforted by the meeting place being so public. What's the worst that could happen?
Like Jess, Madison arrived at Cafe Lounge around 7. Like Jess, she texted Ruby letting her know she was there. And Ruby, as she did with Jess, texted back saying she'd be there soon, that she was just getting cash.
Then Ruby sent another message. "Is it OK if a few friends join?"
"Great," Madison sighed to herself. "Could have told me earlier."
Walking to the bar, she spotted a woman matching the description Ruby had given her.
"Hi, I'm Madison, I'm here to meet Ruby for a date," she said.
"What?" the woman replied, startled. "I'm supposed to be meeting Ruby for a date."
Both women were confused. Maybe they were talking about two different Rubys? They loaded up Tinder to compare their Ruby profiles. They found nothing.
Ruby was gone. Her profile had disappeared from Tinder entirely.
Madison wasn't the only one Ruby was quick to send promiscuous messages to.
"Usually I don't have these feelings for people, but when I see your pictures I just want to tear your clothes off," she told 22-year-old Kim, who's from the Netherlands, almost immediately after matching.
"Come on now," Kim thought as she read the messages. "Calm down."
Kim had a sneaking suspicion Ruby was fake, but then Ruby asked her to come to Cafe Lounge for a date. That meant she wasn't a bot, right?
Waiting outside by the entrance, Kim was approached by a woman. That woman, Michaela, was also on a date with Ruby. Ruby had messaged Michaela saying she was running late, but that her Dutch friend was waiting outside.
"So," Michaela asked as she looked Kim up and down, "are you Ruby's friend?"
Kim got to Cafe Lounge at 6:30. Unbeknownst to her, another Dutch woman, 28-year-old Isabelle, arrived around the same time for the same date. But while Kim decided to wait outside for Ruby, Isabelle entered Cafe Lounge to get a seat.
Inside, Isabelle snagged a table and texted Ruby to say she'd arrived. Ruby gave her the "Don't worry, I'm just getting cash out" treatment. After more than 20 minutes of waiting, Isabelle accepted that her date wasn't going to show up.
By this point she had a drink and was making new friends, chatting happily to a couple sitting nearby. No date? No problem.
Isabelle had begun to forget all about being stood up, and that's when she got a tap on the shoulder. It was a woman she had never seen before.
"Hey," she asked, "are you waiting for Ruby?"
And so it went.
All around Cafe Lounge, women, due to either luck or Ruby's insistence, were meeting one another and realizing their date didn't exist.
Eventually the women coalesced into one group that dominated the bar. Part of that was chance. A lot of it was thanks to Gemma.
Gemma had been with her boyfriend for a number of years but, at 22, decided she wanted to explore a different part of her sexuality. After talking to her partner, she decided she would go on a few dates with women.
That meant going on a Tinder date for the first time.
She had downloaded Tinder and talked to people before, but never actually met up with anyone. Safety concerns, plus the expectations that can sometimes come with a Tinder date, kept her from transitioning from app to real life.
Gemma matched with Ruby around a week prior to their Wednesday date at Cafe Lounge. They talked excitedly for an hour or two on Tinder, sending quick-fire messages and setting up their date, but had only a few exchanges in the days that followed.
The first part of Gemma's story is similar to the rest. She arrived, sent Ruby a message and got a table. She was approached by a nearby woman, Jasmin, who asked if she was Ruby's friend. They had brief, awkward small talk, and quickly realized Ruby, now gone from their Tinder apps, was phony.
But Gemma had more at stake. She had shared personal information with Ruby: her sexual history, her bi-curiosity, details of medical issues.
Panicked and creeped out, Gemma looked around. There was a constellation of women sitting by themselves. Could some of them be here for Ruby, too? Then came a more concerning question: Ruby had messaged Jasmin saying Jasmin was sitting next to Gemma.
Was Ruby at the venue, watching them?
In Gemma's immediate vicinity were three other women: Jess, Candela and Sam. Jess and Candela had met briefly as Jess entered the bar, and they were now having their own "we're both here for Ruby?!" realization. Sam was in between the two duos.
"The weirdest thing has just happened and I feel like I need to share with you all," Gemma announced to the women. "We've just been catfished by the same person. We were both meant to meet a date named Ruby."
All five women exchanged bewildered exclamations. Somehow they had all managed to be tricked by the same Tinder account. They wondered how many of the other women in the bar were there for the same reason.
"Oh my god!" Gemma declared, "I have to catch them all!"
Spurred on by panic, confusion and a strong cocktail, Gemma marched around the bar and accosted every woman she could find.
Outside the bar, Kim and Michaela were still talking to each other. They figured out Ruby wasn't real, but also figured that, since they were there already, they may as well have a drink. As Kim was en route to the bar, she was intercepted by Gemma. "Are you here for Ruby too?"
Isabelle had been chatting with strangers on the opposite side of the venue when Gemma tapped her on the shoulder and asked about Ruby. Gemma gestured to the back of the room, where Isabelle saw seven women waving anxiously at her. "Welcome to our community," one said.
By the time she had looped around the bar, Gemma had found 15 other women who were there for Ruby.
The group of 16 women dominated the venue. There were only a handful of patrons there who hadn't come for Ruby. News of what happened, and why they were all there, had spread to the bartenders and to other bargoers.
Acadia, who had cut dinner with housemates short to make it to her Ruby date on time, talked to the bartender about it. The two exchanged theories, as did other women with friends of the musicians scheduled to play that night.
Madison, meanwhile, became distrustful of the bartenders. Something about their reaction to the story felt disingenuous to her.
Just as she had tracked down women who had been lured to the bar by Ruby, Gemma wanted to track down the person behind the prank. She was hamstrung by the absurdity of it; bartenders and other bargoers she asked couldn't take it seriously, invariably joking that it was them.
Then Gemma and a few of the women got a message from Ruby. "Say hi to the group of girls trying to work things out. Soz."
It was around that time, just before 8, that the first musical act, Sam Joole, took to the stage.
Joole was the first of three acts scheduled to perform that night. Joole, 41, makes his money playing at different functions, from local markets to cruise ships. His performance at Cafe Lounge was a "freebie" -- he'd get to play his original music, rather than covers, but wouldn't be paid in anything but tips.
Joole played three or four songs but was deflated by the indifferent crowd. The women, who made up over 90% of the audience, were understandably captivated by the Ruby situation and paid little attention to the music. "This is not really vibing," Joole begun thinking.
Then one of Joole's friends came on stage and whispered in his ear. He said all the women were there to see Ruby, and encouraged Joole to dedicate the next song to her. So he did.
"This next song is for Ruby!" Joole declared. He didn't get any response. Grasping for straws, he tried again. "Ruby? Ruby, where are you? Is there a Ruby out there?"
The group of women were already suspicious of the event, having concluded that someone in the venue had lured them there. In this context, Joole's callout for Ruby seemed like an insult. Many immediately came to the conclusion that Joole, or someone on behalf of Joole, was behind the Ruby account for the purpose of building a crowd.
"I've had enough of this," Jess said. Madison, already suspicious of the bartenders, also decided she wouldn't stay at the bar.
Jess spearheaded an exodus from Cafe Lounge to another nearby bar. "We've all had a few drinks, we're all wearing our hot first-date outfits, we're clearly all single," she said to the group. "Shall we get this party started?"
Joole watched as the 16 women left. His audience participation bit had backfired in spectacular fashion, leaving less than a handful of patrons in the bar. Several of the women made their displeasure known, flipping him off as they left during his set.
One of Ruby's victims wasn't at Cafe Lounge, but rather 10,000 miles away.
Ruby lured the women to Cafe Lounge using stolen pictures of Ondine Viñao, a video installation artist in New York. Now 25, Viñao modeled while she was in college. That makes the Ruby story a doubly distressing discovery: Not only were her photos stolen, the photos themselves are of her when she was "very young."
"I'm usually preoccupied with the misuse of my data by the social media companies themselves," she said via email. "I'm familiar with the issue of catfishing, but naively assumed I'm less susceptible."
Viñao is especially bothered that the catfisher targeted women from the LGBTQ+ community, she adds. "I wish I knew how to prevent this from happening again, but don't have the answer."
The problem catfishing poses predates the internet by over a hundred years. Grifters in the late 1800s would use personal ads in newspapers and on notice boards to scam singles out of money. But the internet is a catalyst. It makes it easier to find love, but also provides ample opportunity for questionable characters to dupe people or, as it appears "Ruby" did, get their jollies at others' expense.
The women never found out who was behind the Ruby account. The two most popular theories among the women were that Joole or one of Cafe Lounge's bartenders was behind the prank.
"Why would we do that, to bring girls in or something?" one of the bartenders who worked that night told CNET. "That's not what we do. It's just a coincidence that they came to our bar."
Joole also denies being behind the account. "I'm an independent singer, I make a living from singing at local markets and by producing my own songs," he said. "I rely entirely on honest shows. It wouldn't make sense on so many levels for me to do it."
As for the singer's friend who whispered in his ear, Joole claims he attended as last-minute support. "I don't even think he knew about the gig until about a couple of hours before," Joole said.
The women had known each other for less than an hour by the time they moved to the second bar. They would spend the rest of the night getting properly acquainted. They started a Facebook chat and named it "fuck u ruby."
They shared details of what Ruby said to them on Tinder, with different women seemingly getting different Rubys. A few got highly sexualized messages, much to the surprise of those who got a subdued Ruby who just wanted to know how their day was.
"They got messages like, 'when I see your pictures I wanna rip your clothes off.' I didn't get those!" Isabelle laughs. "Maybe that's the most hurtful thing of all."
The women spoke of how they had all separately noticed an unusual amount of single women when they walked into the venue. They also remarked on how unlikely it was for them to be all brought together.
For instance, Kim and Michaela had met outside Cafe Lounge and decided on a whim that, even though Ruby wasn't there, they should go inside to get a drink. Their night would have been different if they had just gone home. They wondered if there were more women who came to Cafe Lounge but didn't connect to the pack.
For some of the women, being catfished was a blessing. Isabelle, new to Sydney, ended up meeting 15 women instead of one. Of the 16 who were catfished, around half ended up going on a date with another woman they met on the night.
But it was also a reminder that even as we've become accustomed to Tinder and online dating, precautions need to be taken. Jess says she's going to trust her gut more, and admits in retrospect there was something fishy about Ruby from the start. Candela was happy to meet the women, but still found the situation creepy. "You never know what can happen," she says.
Gemma, on her first Tinder date ever and making her first foray into dating women, was more crestfallen. It confused her bi-curiosity at a vulnerable time. "When it happened, my initial reaction wasn't like, 'Oh cool, I'm on a date with 14 people.' It was, 'I really want to see my boyfriend.'"
While at the second bar, Gemma got a message from her partner. Trying to be supportive, he asked how her date was going. She replied with a picture of all the women. "Do you see these women? They're my date."
Toward the end of the night, one of the 16 ordered hot fries. The waiter put them down on the table. "Are you girls waiting for anything else?"
"Yeah," one called out, "we're waiting for fucking Ruby."