You know it’s fake. You just know it. If that guy really looked like the dude on his profile pic / avatar, the absolute last thing he’d be doing is wasting his time on a fourth rate dating site. But try as you might, you just can’t prove that profile pic is a photo of someone else… Well, actually, in many cases that’s not true. You can prove it, and it’s ridiculously easy. You just need the help of a free, but grossly under-publicised website...
TinEye.com allows you to upload any photo, and search for a visual match. It really is that simple. You upload that gloriously fake profile pic to TinEye (or simply enter the pic's URL if you have it), and TinEye cites all the other instances it can find of the same photo on the Web. You then look through the results to find out where the original came from, and who it really depicts. Whether you want to experience the fun of challenging the faker is up to you, but you have the information, you know the truth.
The results can be quite extensive. Attractive images can spread fast. However, the likelihood is that the original photo will be the one with the highest resolution. Simply look for the versions of the image with the highest res, and you narrow down your search considerably.
In this instance, I stripped the colour out of a pic of a red hat. Regardless, TinEye was able to find the original image and provide me with a match.
Another option is to use Google's Reverse Image Search. To do that, just go to Google Images, and click on the camera icon at the far right hand side of the search box. It's shown in the top half of the capture above.
You can then upload your pic or enter its URL into the dialogue which appears (it's shown in the bottom half of the above capture). Just as is the case with Tineye, Google will aim to get you as much info as possible. Don't be reluctant to click around the results Google provides, as clicking on the small blue links may show you more than the initial presentation. Google may also have a guess at whom your photo depicts, which can save a lot of time if there's a lot to wade through. However, remember that both Google and Tineye are machines. Google does sometimes get things wrong, so investigate carefully before you go challenging anyone.
Sometimes, neither TinEye nor Google will find any matches, but you shouldn’t take this as evidence that the profile pic is genuine. Firstly, there are several ways that a reverse image search utility can be misled into thinking that the same image is in fact different. Digital editing is often the culprit. For example, I took a photo of a hat from Google Image search, and uploaded it to TinEye. No problem at all. TinEye found the match straight away. I tried editing the colours, or rendering the shot black and white – it made no difference, TinEye still found the match. However, when I mirror-imaged the photo with a single click process in my image editor, TinEye couldn’t find it – even if the colours were exactly the same as the original. Fairly small detail changes also prevented TinEye from locating the match, with or without the mirror imaging.
This time, however, I mirror-imaged the photo before uploading to TinEye. TinEye was unable to find the match. This is a potential 'escape route' for fakers, but you can play them at their own game (see main text).
If a faker/catfish is aware of reverse image searching and knows how to use an image editor, they could quite easily ensure their pic doesn’t show up in the search. Most profile pic thieves will probably be using the photo as is, but the number who are wising up to the possibility of being caught is increasing.
I’d also guess that if the faker is tech-aware and has edited the image to confuse TinEye, they’ll most likely only have mirrored it. Therefore, if you have the capability to mirror-image a photo (the free editor Photoscape allows you to mirror a photo in a single click), you can play the faker at their own game and mirror it back. Try one TinEye search with the standard pic as found, and if that doesn’t give you a match, mirror-image the pic and try again. Chances are, if it’s been taken from a public area of the Web, you’ll find it.
Of course, the photo may not have been taken from the Web in the first place - maybe it was scanned from a book or magazine. Alternatively, it could have been taken from an area of the Internet that Google or Tineye cannot index. Private Facebook or protected Twitter accounts, for example, or other social apps/sites which block web crawler bots for images. Then there's Instagram, which does not store its images in the conventional manner, and thus keeps them hidden from the web crawler bots that feed the search engines. The Instagram method of image protection looks great on paper, until a thief works out the simple means of getting round it. Once that happens, you have a potential catfish with a supply of pics that cannot be reverse searched. Not good.
So in these instances and more, reverse image searching stands no chance of exposing the fake. When I published the original version of this post, the scourge of stolen profile pics was relatively easy to police. At the time of this autumn 2015 update, the rise of Instagram and the increasing trend of thieving from protected areas of the web has made calling out the catfish much more difficult.
The best advice I can give, is to trust your gut feeling. If you believe a profile pic is fake, don’t change your mind. There are other ways of checking for fake profiles, which I've discussed in the How To Spot Catfish Accounts on Twitter two-parter, and in the broader How to Spot an Online Faker article.
The possibilities with TinEye and Google reverse image searching reach way beyond simply exposing fake profiles. The routines also provide a good way to monitor who’s using/stealing your own photos, to put a name to a celebrity’s face, or even just to re-trace which site you donwloaded a specific image from.
TinEye and Google won’t find everything. But they will, even in late 2015, still find a hell of a lot.
This post was updated in November 2015