The Profile A mysterious profile pops up on a dating app - leading to a bubble of chaos and confusion. A story about trying to sort fact versus fiction, how destabilizing that can be, and a very strange confrontation with the truth. NOTE: Since this story was originally published, we have added some background reporting and context to the episode.
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The Profile

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The Profile

The Profile

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ALIX SPIEGEL, HOST:

My father used to have a drawer full of fake IDs. I remember that one said that he was a doctor, and another said that he was an airline pilot. But the details of the others have faded. I just remember looking at the miniature image of my father's face under the ID plastic and wondering what was going on. Was this some scheme to get free parking, or was he actually trying to fool a specific person? And why?

I asked once, but he wouldn't answer. He said he'd explain when I got older. Unfortunately, by the time older came, an infection had ravaged his brain. So now I'll never know the truth, never know if any of my theories were correct.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HANNA ROSIN, HOST:

This is INVISIBILIA from NPR. I'm Hanna Rosin.

SPIEGEL: And I'm Alix Spiegel. This is the second episode of our fall season, which we're using as an opportunity to bring you stories each month that are a little bit shorter and a little bit different in flavor from our usual spring episodes.

ROSIN: Today's episode is about a very weird thing that happened to INVISIBILIA producer Yowei Shaw a few months ago. It's a mystery which, like what happened with Alix's father, forced Yowei to question what she should believe - a story which, by the end, we hope will force you to question those same things, too. Just a heads-up - today's story contains some bad language.

Here's Yowei.

YOWEI SHAW, BYLINE: I first heard about the mystery from my best friend Juliana Reyes, who heard about it from her friend, this woman Bethany Ao, which is why, not too long ago, Juliana and I poured ourselves some shots of mezcal and called Bethany up to get more info.

BETHANY AO: Hello?

SHAW: Hi.

JULIANA REYES: Hi.

SHAW: Basically, a little while ago, Bethany was on this dating app called Hinge, and she comes across a profile of a guy named Kyle.

AO: And I was like, that's weird; I feel like I've seen him before.

SHAW: She thinks she's seen him before because she's pretty sure she's eaten eggs and hash browns inside his house - my house, actually - when I once hosted this Asian American journalist ladies brunch. In other words, Bethany thinks the guy behind the Hinge profile is my boyfriend Kyle - Kyle Pulley, the man I live with and love and, to my knowledge, the person I've been dating monogamously for the past six years.

AO: And I was like, oh, my God. Did something happen?

SHAW: Bethany is so weirded out, she just quits the app and goes to bed. But a few days later, she lands on the profile again. And this time, she decides to investigate to find out if it really is the same Kyle. She only has a few clues to work off of - a first name, location - Philadelphia - and a profession - a music producer at Headroom Studios, the name of the recording business my boyfriend runs.

AO: I Google Kyle, and I Google, like, Headroom Studios or whatever. And I come up with a Facebook profile. And so I kind of scroll through it to see what I can see 'cause we're not Facebook friends.

SHAW: So she's scrolling. She can only see a few photos. But then one of them she recognizes from the Hinge dating app profile.

AO: He's leaning over to one side, and he's in this, like, hoodie. And he's holding a beer.

SHAW: I can describe the photo from memory. It's actually my favorite picture of Kyle because it's so quintessentially him. He's standing in a gas station with a black hood pulled up over his red hair. His eyes are closed tightly, and he's clutching this tallboy can of PBR as if he's passionately playing bass guitar in front of a screaming audience or just to make his friends laugh.

This is him.

REYES: Definitely him.

SHAW: This is him. So did you take...

AO: Yes.

SHAW: ...Screenshots of the profile?

AO: I didn't. I wish I had. I guess I didn't have reason to take screenshots of the profile 'cause I was just like, oh, like, maybe they broke up. And then eventually, I just swiped left. I'm like, I'm not going to swipe right on this man. Like, that's weird.

REYES: Bethany's like, I want to make sure you know I did not swipe right.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: When Juliana first heard about this from Bethany, she was horrified and obviously worried for me.

REYES: Like, of course I thought that he did something wrong. And I think that's just because of, like, men and just because of, like, feeling defensive of you.

SHAW: So Juliana decides to go straight to the source - to grill Kyle and see what the man has to say for himself.

KYLE PULLEY: I was at rehearsal, and Jules texted me and said she had to talk to me. I thought maybe it was, like, she had some question about you.

SHAW: Jules, aka Juliana.

PULLEY: She was like, OK, this is going to be very uncomfortable, but I'm just going to go for it. I was like, oh, God, what is this going to be about? And then to my relief (laughter), she was like, so do you have a profile on Hinge? And I'd never even heard of Hinge.

SHAW: Kyle tells Juliana he doesn't have a profile on Hinge, that it's not him. He says maybe it's a case of mistaken identity. Maybe Bethany saw the profile of this other red-haired producer in Philly who's also named Kyle.

PULLEY: You know, people think redheads look the same.

REYES: And so of course, I'm like, that is what someone would say. So I mean, I was, like, a little bit sketched - I don't know. I was just, like, sketched out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: I finally learned about the profile the night Juliana confronted Kyle. And I got to say - I totally believed Kyle at first, but there was something about the details that kept needling me. They were so specific - Headroom Studios, the PBR guitar photo. And there was a way people would look at me when I'd tell the story at parties - this flash of pity across the face like, oh, honey, he made the profile.

And I don't know. This doughnut of trust I was floating in began to deflate. Maybe Kyle really had created the profile. Maybe he really was trying to cheat and had somehow chosen the dumbest, most public way of doing it. And then Kyle was away on tour with his band. I was all alone in the house, and I finally snapped.

Did you know that I was trying to get into your email?

PULLEY: Yes.

SHAW: Thanks to two-factor authentication, Kyle got an alert that I was trying to break into his email to spy on him, though he didn't think anything was sinister at first.

PULLEY: Like, maybe just, like, needed it for some reason other than you didn't trust me. And then I think once I put it all together, I was just, like - then I felt annoyed.

SHAW: I mean, as you should be.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: For the record, I am not someone who has ever broken into a partner's email before. But that night, I was feeling so unsettled. I was, like, itching for proof. And it got me thinking. How often do other people find themselves in the same situation where you discover your partner on a dating app and you have to figure out what's true or not true? I put out a call out, and I got dozens of responses.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You know, I was like, you have a Tinder?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Trying to match...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And this is all like a really sh***y Lifetime movie.

SHAW: Some were funny, like the woman whose partner found out she was on Tinder, but it turned out she was just trying to buy some weed while traveling and had made a profile to make some connections.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yeah, it was, like, very weird...

SHAW: Other examples were more troubling.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: This happened when my daughter was 9 months.

SHAW: Someone told me she created a fake identity just to see if her husband would take the bait, which he did.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I had done this to him. Why should I be shocked?

SHAW: And then there were the downright dystopic anecdotes, like the man who discovered that his boyfriend was messaging people on Tinder, which he says turned out to be another guy trying to ruin their relationship.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Kind of freaking out because this had actually...

SHAW: And then I talked to this person Lisa-Marie. We're using her first name to protect her privacy because she was the Kyle in the situation.

LISA-MARIE: Oh, it was absolutely terrifying.

SHAW: She told me someone was impersonating her on Tinder. And though she was able to eventually convince her husband that it wasn't her, she says her relationship was never the same - not to mention all the people in her life who never seemed to stop thinking she was a cheater.

How many people just completely stopped talking to you?

LISA-MARIE: Twelve just straight away - completely removed me from everything. Twelve of them gone.

SHAW: Lisa-Marie never found out who was catfishing with her identity, and she still wonders to this day if someone was trying to sabotage her, which brings us back to Kyle and me. Like, I know it could just be a bot. But what if someone was trying to sabotage him - mess with Kyle, mess with me or us as a couple? Or, like so many people before me, was I just being a sucker - someone who mistook fake for real or the other way around?

ROSIN: After the break, a very strange confrontation with the truth. This is INVISIBILIA from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: This is INVISIBILIA from NPR. Yowei continues with her story.

SHAW: I wanted to clear Kyle's good name, prove to the doubters and maybe a tiny corner of myself that this was all wrong. Kyle wasn't a cheater. And it felt like there was only one way to do that. I needed to track down the real person or bot behind the profile. Juliana agreed to help me, but, first, we had to get Kyle on board.

Do you want us to figure it out for you?

PULLEY: I mean, I guess.

SHAW: You don't care that someone is impersonating you on Hinge?

PULLEY: I mean, I guess. Yeah, I guess I do care.

REYES: When you put it that way...

SHAW: Are you kidding me? Someone is impersonating you and your business.

PULLEY: Well, why is - well, OK. Yes, that is - yeah, actually, no, that's bad.

REYES: Well, think about how many other people other than Bethany who have swiped on you and matched with you and are, like, talking to you.

PULLEY: Oh, fuck. I didn't think about that. Maybe some, like, young musician will, like, match with me and then fake Kyle will be a creep to them, and they'll be like, Kyle Pulley's a creep.

REYES: I mean, that's true.

SHAW: I mean, it could totally happen, Kyle, not to freak you out.

PULLEY: I know. I know.

SHAW: Sorry. OK.

PULLEY: So let's fucking - let's find this guy, and I'm going to kick his ass.

SHAW: How do you know it's a guy?

PULLEY: Well, I don't know. Then, Yowei, then you have to kick her ass.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PULLEY: Hello?

SHAW: How are you?

PULLEY: I'm good. I am in Austin in the backyard of this venue.

SHAW: It's been a few weeks since the investigation started. The plan is simple. I want to try catfishing the catfisher, find the fake profile and then lure the person or bot into having a conversation with us. And so that's what I've been up to, getting on Hinge every morning, trying to train the algorithm to send me redheads with beards who happen to be music nerds. Meanwhile, Kyle, even though he's been away on tour, he has a new clue. He put up a Facebook post about the fake profile, and someone got in touch to say she's seen him on Hinge back in November.

Wow, mid-November. That means it's been up for a while.

PULLEY: I know. I mean, I'm trying not to think about it too much 'cause it's driving me crazy.

SHAW: OK. Well, we will get to the bottom of this or shut it down. I promise.

PULLEY: But, I mean, I just hope there's, like, some kind of way I can, like, find every person who's, like, ever, you know, messaged this fake profile and be like, it wasn't me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: But what if we never find who or what is behind the profile? What if the profile has been scamming women or sending nudes as Kyle? I spent my days and nights swiping - a millennial Asian version of Nancy Drew - and then magically the other week, a break in the case.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOSH JOHNSON: (As Will) Hello?

SHAW: Hi. Hey. This is Yowei Shaw. I'm a reporter, and I have my boyfriend Kyle by my side.

PULLEY: Yo, dude.

JOHNSON: (As Will) Oh, hey.

SHAW: All my swiping had paid off, and I'd arranged a Skype audio call with the person behind the profile. He says his name is Will, that he lives in the area and manages a local pizza shop that he won't tell us the name of. We have no idea how long he's going to talk to us, so we get right to the point.

Are you trying to get money?

JOHNSON: (As Will) No. I mean, I have a job. I don't - no, I don't need money from it. I wouldn't steal.

PULLEY: You're not trying to, like, blackmail us or anything, right?

JOHNSON: (As Will) No. No, I don't - no.

SHAW: Are you trying to creep on women?

JOHNSON: (As Will) I mean, no, not - there's no creeping involved. I mean - conversation.

SHAW: Oh.

Will says he's talked to anywhere from six to 10 women using Kyle's fake profile. He says he's just made casual, getting-to-know-you conversation, no scams, nothing sexual or aggressive - so he says.

Why did you choose Kyle?

PULLEY: Yeah, that's the thing I'm still wondering myself.

JOHNSON: (As Will) So, I mean, like, this isn't the first time I've done this. I've had a little experience. So I started off by looking for cool, like, tech jobs in the city, people that girls might want to talk to, and then I came across Headroom Studios, like, in my searching and I was just like, this is a cool guy.

SHAW: Kyle, how does it feel to be thought of as a cool guy?

PULLEY: I don't know.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: Will says he started catfishing for the boring reasons you'd expect. He wasn't getting any action with his own profile, and he just had more luck talking to women being someone else. But that didn't move me.

Being driven to that point of trying to get into my boyfriend's email, which I've never done before and I'm so embarrassed about, I feel like that would be a deal-breaker for so many people. Like, I could have lost Kyle because of you.

JOHNSON: (As Will) Wow. Is there anything positive out of this? Has this made your relationship stronger at all?

SHAW: I don't want to give you the satisfaction of, like, feeling good about anything that you did. But there's something about being tested in this way.

PULLEY: Yeah, I don't - I don't know why you're...

SHAW: Were you surprised?

PULLEY: I don't know why you're telling him this. This is the guy who, like, impersonated me. If he was even a little bit worse of a dude, my business could be...

SHAW: All right, all right.

PULLEY: ...Toast.

SHAW: We asked Will if he'd be willing to share contacts for the women he talked to as Kyle and, surprisingly, he said yes.

JOHNSON: (As Will) I hope nothing else comes of this, like, anything that, you know, reflects poorly on your name.

PULLEY: Yeah, well, time will tell.

JOHNSON: (As Will) If it does, we can meet up and you can punch me or something.

SHAW: For a while after the call, Kyle and I sat in silence, mostly just relieved that now we had the truth and also a standing offer to punch someone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: Thank you to Kyle Pulley, Juliana Reyes, Bethany Ao and Josh Johnson for playing Will the catfisher.

JOHNSON: As soon as we had finished, I wasn't sure if it was believable or not. I was not confident in that performance, but I was...

SHAW: Oh, no, you did great. You were great. Thank you.

OK. Time for full disclosure. I'm going to give you the real truth. Though I really did try for months - and believe me I'm a trier - I never found the fake profile, let alone the person behind it. And so I decided to ask this guy Josh from my improv class to make up a character, and we improvised that entire fake catfisher call. This, after all, is a story about the blurred lines between fact and fiction and how destabilizing it can be to not have a clear sense of which is which. So instead of just telling you about the experience I was going through, I figured why not actually give you the experience yourself? So now you feel it, right? No longer safe, maybe a little wary, all because of one false thing in an otherwise true story that was fact-checked by an independent reporter.

JOHNSON: Yeah. I hope no one feels betrayed by the end of this. Like, what? No - what? Him?

SHAW: Well, I feel like that might happen.

The reality is there's all kinds of situations big and small that create doubt that you can't get to the bottom of. And so what we do often is settle on a story to get by. After all, any story is better than a pile of question marks.

Even though I know it's not real, I feel better having done that. It felt almost therapeutic.

It kind of reminds me of role play therapy where the very act of confronting someone, even if it's just your therapist pretending to be that someone, it gives you the chance to work through your emotions or just yell at someone for a bit - another possibly troubling example, in case we needed it, that even a false story can provide comfort, especially when it tells you what you want to hear. At least that's the way it worked for me.

How did it feel for you?

PULLEY: Uncomfortable.

SHAW: Why?

PULLEY: Because I hate performance art.

SHAW: (Laughter).

PULLEY: Took way longer than I thought it would.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PULLEY: If he had actually done it, we would not have talked to him like we did.

SHAW: Really? I mean...

PULLEY: Definitely not - yeah.

SHAW: ...I'm a reporter. I'm trying to get the story.

PULLEY: But no - but you weren't the reporter. You were just, like, you know, trying to ask all these, like, wacky questions.

SHAW: But that's what I do as a reporter (laughter).

PULLEY: I know, but you were like, Kyle, like, what...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARTHUR TOSCANO SONG, "SEATTLE")

SPIEGEL: That's producer Yowei Shaw.

ROSIN: INVISIBILIA is hosted by me, Hanna Rosin.

SPIEGEL: And me, Alix Spiegel. Our show today was edited by us, as well as Neva Grant and Anne Gudenkauf. Our executive producer is Cara Tallo. INVISIBILIA is produced by Yowei Shaw and Abby Wendle. Our project manager is Liana Simstrom.

ROSIN: We had help from Oliver Whang, David Guthertz, Mark Memmott, Micah Ratner, B.A. Parker, Kia Miakka Natisse, Leena Sanzgiri, Anjuli Sastry, and Rebecca Ramirez. Fact-checking by Jamison Pfeifer. Our technical director is Andy Huether. Our favorite IT guy is Alpha Drabo. And our vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann. Music for this episode by Yung Kartz, Blue Dot Sessions and Ramtin Arablouei. Special thanks to Bryant Zadegan, Devan Spear and to Troy Hunt and Alex Goldman for giving us super tech support. Alex co-hosts the excellent podcast we all love "Reply All." If you don’t already listen, do yourself a favor. Also a big thank you to the relationship advice and catfish subreddits and all the people who shared their stories with us. We appreciate you.

SPIEGEL: And PS, just to be clear, we reached out to Hinge several times and didn't get an interview. But we did finally talk to them about shutting down the fake profile. So if you happen to spot a red-haired producer out there on the dating apps playing air guitar with A PBR, let us know.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARTHUR TOSCANO SONG, "SEATTLE")

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