Those who met their current significant other in an age before the internet often have a difficult time understanding courtship rituals in the year 2019. Even Gen-Xers who are navigating the single-scape are having trouble adjusting to the way social media and dating apps have changed the way relationships are formed in the United States. The internet has done wonderful things for the world of dating. It reignites old flames who haven’t seen one another since high school. It connects the dots between persons across the country. It brings together people from different walks of life for a far more interesting relationship. However, the anonymity of the internet and the potential to be whoever you want to be has fostered one of the most devastating types of scams that exist in the modern world: romance scams perpetrated by “catfish”.
If you follow internet culture, you’re likely aware of a television program called Catfish: The TV Show. The series is a continuation of creator Nev Schulman’s 2010 documentary simply called Catfish. The film followed Schulman’s journey through his own romance scam, in which he met a woman online named Megan through the internet. Megan claimed to be many things: a singer, songwriter, recording artist, photographer, rancher, and part of an equally-talented family. Through their online communications, Megan led Schulman to believe that her life was very picturesque, but tragically, she has cancer. After several attempts to finally meet Megan fall apart, Schulman and his production team make the trip to finally meet her and begin to realize along the way she may not be truthful about her identity. At the end of the film, Schulman and his team realize that there was never really a Megan. “Megan” was actually a middle-aged woman, Angela, who used the internet as a way of connecting with others in her insular life. The online identity of “Megan” was not entirely fiction—Angela did have a daughter named Megan, who was a photographer, and she used that piece of personal information to craft a persona that endeared her to men and garnered their attention on the internet.
Schulman’s story is unfortunately a common thread in today’s dating world. In 2011, a year or so after the documentary first premiered, studies showed that males between the ages of 40-49 and females between the ages of 50-59, made up the largest age groups effected by romance scams or “catfishing,” 28% and 35% respectively. In most confidence tricks, frauds, or scams, the goal is simply to rob an individual of their finances for personal gain. Catfish scams are particularly ugly, because it’s not just about money. A catfish’s target is often a trusting person, a benevolent person who might experience low self-esteem, and is often isolated from others for a myriad of reasons. That person makes a real emotional investment in the catfish with the intention and belief that they will spend the rest of their lives with that person when they finally meet.
“Catfish” is an appropriate name for this particular type of scammer, according to Special Agent Christine Beining, a seasoned financial fraud agent in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Houston Division. Even as recently as 2017, she says, romance scams were on the rise. According to the FBI’s website, in 2016, almost 15,000 complaints which fell under the umbrella of romance or confidence frauds were reported, which is 2,500 more than 2015. Beining characterizes a catfish in search of their next victim as throwing a fishing line, “The internet makes this type of crime easy because you can pretend to be anybody you want to be. You can be anywhere in the world and victimize people. The perpetrators will reach out to a lot of people on various networking sites to find somebody who may be a good target. Then they use what the victims have on their profile pages and try to work those relationships and see which ones develop.” She offers the example of a Texas woman who ended up sending a cumulative $2 million to a man she met over the internet who “said all the right things.” This catfish targeted the woman’s strong Christian faith, and capitalized on it to pull her into his web of deception. When scammers are using social media maliciously, how are we supposed to protect ourselves in a digital age?
One of the country’s best fraud watchdogs, the Better Business Bureau, conducted a study last year on the current climate of catfishing and other forms of romance scams. While there are some discrepancies among experts as to what defines a romance scam, four consistent stages of a scam emerge:
Contacting the victims
Like Christine Beining said, scammers use the internet as a fishing line, and create dozens of fake profiles online with stolen pictures and manufactured personas in the hopes of netting a handful of victims. They hope to form an instant connection with that person, usually though an alleged common interest based on information mined from the victim’s page or profile. A potential victim loves to ski? Suddenly that catfish also loves to ski, even if they’ve never been. After a short period of time, the catfish will often encourage the victim to move the conversation somewhere else, like texting or another instant-messaging platform. This way, if their profiles are flagged by the social media platform as a scam, they will still be able to contact victims already in the net.
Like any predator, catfish depend on grooming behavior to make the victim emotionally dependent on them. They learn about the victim’s life—their hopes, their dreams, their traumas, their family drama. This stage varies in length, but it can often go on for months as catfish attempt to build an impenetrable wall of trust around themselves and the victim. Endearing themselves so allows them to have credibility in the victim’s eyes when those around them might arch an eyebrow. In a further effort to telegraph their integrity, scammers might also send gifts to their victim as one of the hallmarks of a “real relationship.” This is the stage where scammers begin to test the limits of the victim. They ask for small favors, such as small cash amounts to buy groceries or pay the phone bill so their communication may continue. It’s also the stage where catfish begin to further isolate their victims from their friends and family so the fraud can continue unhindered.
This is where the predator’s bites out of a victim’s income become exponentially larger. In any romance scam, one of the most common plot points in the catfish’s narrative is an “emergency,” likely with themselves or a close member of their family for which they need a cash sum. It can be anything from hospital bills to a plane ticket. If the victim is always willing to send money, there’s no way to predict when the fraud will conclude. This is also where victims can find themselves in real danger. Victims who are not simply bilked out of their savings can easily get mixed up in things such as money laundering or larger scale frauds as an oblivious participant. In the most severe cases, victims get on a plane to meet the catfish and meet a violent fate at the hands of a person they thought was their sweetheart.
The fraud continues
Exposing a catfish does not mean the nightmare is over. There has been an increase in brazen catfish continuing the fraud after being unmasked, this time disguised as a good Samaritan who just wants to help the victim get their money back. They can take the form of a law enforcement officer or a private investigator. The original persona might also reach back out sheepishly—admitting that they had been caught, but what originally began as a con to get their money has now become true love. It’s not uncommon for victims to allow the fraud to continue, having acknowledged the catfish’s honesty.
If you’ve been the victim of a catfish or romance scam, contact a private investigator today to learn how they can help you expose the culprit. A private investigator’s skill set and lack of any bureaucratic ladder will allow the case to move swiftly and efficiently, as time can be of the essence when chasing a scammer, who can quickly pack up their tent and move on to another social media platform before law enforcement pins them down. Private investigators also have no jurisdictional restrictions within their cases, which is particularly crucial to exposing scammers who are operating outside of the United States. They can also empower you with crucial knowledge to prevent the cycle of fraud from continuing. While it may sound callous to some, the best rule of thumb is to never send money to an individual you have never met in real life. After all, the internet is not a substitution for face-to-face interactions. If you’ve connected with someone over the internet, and the chemistry is there, a genuine person will not have the resistance and excuses that catfish often do when the jig is up.
Carie McMichael is the Media and Communication Specialist for Lauth Investigations International. For more information, please visit our website.