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.
You receive a phone call and hear the voice of someone you don’t recognize. They tell you they have your child and will kill them unless you pay a ransom – they direct you not to call police or you will never see your child again.
What would you do?
You tell the person on the other end of the phone not to hang up. You don’t want to disconnect with the one person that can reunite you with your child. You plead for your child’s safe return. “Please don’t hurt her. I will do whatever you want,” you say. And, you would!
They demand you go to the bank and wire a ransom of several thousand dollars. Do you call the police? Do you pay the ransom and hope the thug will return your child to you safe?
A child going missing is every parent’s worst nightmare, and for those who do have a missing child – living with such ambiguity is said to be the most traumatic of human experiences.
Sounds like a situation that only happens in the movies, right? Or, something that only happens to the wealthiest people in society.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has declared virtual kidnapping a violent crime and issuing warnings to parents that scammers are targeting parents and demanding a ransom in exchange for the safe return of children they kidnapped . . . well, virtually kidnapped. Police throughout the country are following suit, issuing warnings in their communities.
Police throughout the country are following suit, issuing warnings in their communities.
What is a Virtual Kidnapping?
A virtual kidnapping scam is an attempt to dupe victims into paying a quick ransom. The virtual aspect of the scam involves staging a scene on the phone to convince a person that a loved one has been kidnapped, following with a demand for ransom.
According to the FBI, “The success of any type of virtual kidnapping scheme depends on speed and fear. Criminals know they only have a short time to exact a ransom before victims unravel the scam or authorities become involved.”
Typically, the scam is executed by calling a victim claiming they have kidnapped a loved one, then demand a ransom in exchange for the loved one’s safe return.
Valerie Sobel is one such person who did receive a call from a person who said, “We have your daughter’s finger. Pay up or you’ll get the rest of her body in a body bag.”
Petrified, Sobel rushed to a money transfer location to pay the ransom, wiring $4,000 to the person who claimed to have kidnapped her daughter.
Valerie made many frantic phone calls to her daughter’s cell phone and after many hours had passed, her daughter Simone called her back totally confused but safe.
Basically, scammers call random numbers hoping to find a person who they can convince, while other times these scammers research Facebook and other social media platforms for names and numbers. If a scammer calls 100 people, chances are at least one will instantly pay.
Another way it may go down is a scammer calls you and you hear a child crying, “Mom, please help me.” Panic immediately sets in. You think it is your child. Then a man’s voice comes on the phone and calls you by your first name. This legitimizes the caller and you immediately ask them to just tell you what they want. What mother would not empty her bank account in exchange for her child’s safety.
If you don’t think you could become a victim, please read on.
Virtually Kidnapped Daughter
According to the Washington Post, Wendy Mueller lives in historic Leesburg, Va., and never thought she would become a victim of a virtual kidnapping scam.
One afternoon, while standing at her kitchen sink, she received a call from a number she did not recognize but answered.
She heard screaming and it sounded like her 23-year old daughter’s voice begging for help.
Then a man’s voice tells her, “we have your daughter.”
The caller told Mueller to put her phone on speaker, get her purse and phone charger and get into the car.
The man asked, “How much cash can you get right now?”
$10,000,” Mueller replied.
The man told her not to contact anyone for help or they would kill her daughter.
Mueller’s daughter attends college hundreds of miles away and she had no way of knowing her daughter was safe.
“They told me they were actually targeting someone else, someone they would be able to get a lot of money for. But they said my daughter intervened when they tried to grab him. And that sounded exactly like something she would do,” Mueller said.
“I was terrified,” Mueller continued. “They told me they wouldn’t hesitate to kill her.”
The caller had told Mueller he had hacked her phone and knew every move she was making. For hours, he told her to go to small stores and offices across Northern Virginia, where she wired the max amount of usually $1,900 each time to names and addresses in Mexico that the caller had given Mueller.
Mueller cross-crossed the state following his directions and making payments, until nightfall came.
Mueller had kept asking to speak to her daughter.
“They kept promising me: ‘As soon as you send the last one, you will talk to her,’” Mueller said.
The caller told Mueller he was a professional and part of a group of kidnappers – a huge organization – who do this all the time and kill.
The man told Mueller they had placed a set of headphones on her daughter so she could hear everything, so her daughter would know if her mother did anything to cause her death.
Mueller thought of stopping passersby but didn’t want to chance the kidnapper knowing.
“It was torture,” Mueller said.
As it turned out, her daughter was in class, safe and sound. Mueller had been scammed.
No one is immune
Thousands of families throughout the country have become targets of these malicious scammers.
According to FBI kidnapping expert, Agent Eric Arbuthnot, several organizations use these scams regularly to make money.
“Thousands of dollars in ransom,” said Arbuthnot. “And you’re talking about a criminal organization that is capable of doing more than one kidnapping at a time.”
According to Arbuthnot many of the cases have been happening on the West coast and along the border involving criminal organizations from Mexico, some claiming to be members of the cartel.
The FBI has seen recent increases in California, Nevada, New York, and Texas and increasing on the east coast.
Monroe Police Department in Connecticut said by using social media, scammers can identify a victim, look up relatives, and reference names of family members and friends to make the call appear legitimate.
FBI Supervisory Agent Christopher Johnson said his office in St. Louis, Missouri, deals with these types of crimes. “Scammers will often mention specific facts about the parent or victim, likely from information they were able to obtain online.”
Authorities say about one in five kidnapping cases are successful resulting in the criminal getting their ransom and not getting caught. While extortion has been around for decades, virtual ransom kidnapping calls are increasing around the country.
With this emerging scam, the FBI has launched a nationwide campaign to warn parents to fight back against “virtual kidnapping.”
If you receive a virtual kidnapping ransom call
Unlike traditional kidnapping schemes, a “virtual kidnapper” has not actually kidnapped anyone. According to Federal Bureau of Investigation, if you receive a call from an individual demanding a ransom for the safe return of a kidnap victim, it is suggested you quickly evaluate the following to determine if you are receiving a legitimate ransom call:
- Caller insists you stay on the phone.
- Call does not come from your child’s cell phone.
- Caller tries to stop you from contacting the kidnap victim.
- Call includes demand for ransom to be paid via wire transfer.
- Ransom amounts may decrease quickly.
Knowing what to do
Police say it is best to hang up the phone but:
- If you engage the caller, don’t call out your loved one’s name.
- Deliberately try to slow the situation down and ask to speak to your child directly.
- Ask “proof of life” questions like, “How do I know my loved one is okay?”
- To gain confirmation if your child is an actual kidnapping victim, ask questions only your child would know such as the name of a pet.
- Listen very closely to the voice of the person speaking, if possible record the call.
- If possible, have someone else try to call your child’s cell phone, school, by text, social media, etc., to confirm their safety.
- To buy time, repeat the caller’s request and tell them you are writing down the demand, or tell the caller you need time to make arrangements.
- Don’t agree to pay a ransom, by wire or in person.
- Don’t deliver money in person.
- Immediately call your local FBI office and police.
According to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), as of March 31, 2017, there were 86,618 active missing person cases in the FBI database, with 8, 792 entered as involuntary.
Experts agree that an actual kidnapping with a ransom demand is quite rare but all experts urge parents to be vigilant.
To read the FBI warning, please click here.
Surveillance capitalism has multiplied the number of eyes on us at all times. Ubiquity of security cameras, traffic cameras, and cell phones with cameras have made it possible for law enforcement to track a suspect’s movements for entire city blocks. And that’s not counting the omnipresent eye of social media, where photo and geo tags can assist law enforcement and private investigators with locating suspects, witnesses, and collect information about a location without having to leave the comfort of their offices in what is now called a “geosocial investigation.”
Before the age of geo-data on social media, employees who called off work on Friday to enjoy a three-day weekend in Atlantic City had no fears of being discovered on Monday by a nosy employer who checked their social media. When social media was in its formative years, a private investigator would be lucky to be scraping the social media of a subject who was indiscriminate about what they chose to post on their Myspace page. Nowadays, employees have to be more cautious regarding posts about their out-of-work activities than ever, with many employees maintaining two Facebook pages—a work Facebook populated by posts that would not offend the most fastidious human resource employee, and a personal Facebook where employees reveal themselves, warts and all, with no regard for who might see the pages. Now, the new reality of surveillance capitalism has changed the world of third-party investigations forever with the assistance of geosocial investigations.
Geosocial investigations are a subset of social media investigations, where the focus of the research centers around a place, rather than a single individual. After all, if you fraudulently submit an FMLA claim that prevents you from working, you’d be very careful not to post any pictures of yourself enjoying vigorous activities, like yard work or hiking. However, if you’re in a group of individuals—all with smartphones and social media profiles of their own—it’s nearly impossible to prevent all pictures of yourself from seeing the light of the internet. This newfound culture of hypervigilance and surveillance may sound like it’s harder for law enforcement and private investigators to squeeze blood from the stone of social media, but where individuals might be protective of their own information online, their friends and relatives may not.
Deriving information on a subject from the social media profiles of their friends and family is a major tenant of geosocial investigations. Exposure online is not limited to pictures. Social media widgets that allow users to check in at specific locations, or add geotags to the photos they post, are also exposing malingering employees during internal investigations. Law enforcement can use this technology to search for social media posts geotagged at the time of an auto-accident in order to locate witnesses. By the same token, they can use it to identify people who are posting in restricted areas where civilians are not allowed. The effect of this technology allows a private investigator to “crowdsource” the information, saving themselves hours of tracking down witnesses and interviewing them.
Geo-social investigations are just one consequence of the world’s newfound surveillance capitalism. As the technology continues to mature and become more sophisticated, social media will continue to expose criminals and malingerers. Employers will see a rise in the exposure of employees abusing FMLA claims. Former employees violating non-compete agreements will be exposed before they have a chance to get a new business venture off the ground. Law enforcement and private investigators will be able to crowdsource investigations with the use of geo-social data.
Carie McMichael is the Media and Communications Specialist for Lauth Investigations International. For more information please visit our website.
In the first decades of the 21st century, we have witnessed advances in technology unprecedented in human history. It was once costly and cumbersome to rely on technology to work for you. The reality today is astonishingly different. To view this article, you likely performed a Google search (or whatever your search engine of choice) and clicked through several links to get here. Advances in technology have made it possible for the search engine to collect the data you spread through the internet and use data to determine what kind of advertising you’ll see in the side banners of the websites you visit. For many in America, our phones and our cameras are the same device. Clunky security systems are a thing of the past, and spy cameras can be made as small as a button. This new reality has a name: surveillance capitalism.
There was a time in the United States where changing your identity was as simple as grabbing what you can carry, hopping a train or hitchhiking to a new location, and introducing yourself to others under a different name. Now, in the world of surveillance capitalism, almost every piece of data you put out in the world, either online or on an official form, will likely be entered into a database where you can be tracked by anyone with the proper clearance. At Lauth Investigations International, we use databases like these every day to perform skip traces, asset searches, and background checks. And then there’s the omnipresent threat of “Big Brother,” a moniker often attributed today to the government agencies, law enforcement, and other surveillance platforms who are constantly watching us on what can only be imagined as an IMAX display of viewing screens. Not to mention the entities that might be surveying us and our information in a manner not exactly above reproach, such as Google, Facebook, and every demonym of foreign hackers who see America’s obsession with its surveillance culture as its Achilles heel.
It’s not all doom and gloom, of course. Humans in America and abroad have reaped the top-tier benefits of surveillance capitalism, such as using the “Find My iPhone” to locate someone who has been reported missing. In the recent high-profile case of a missing young woman from Brooklyn, Iowa, Mollie Tibbetts, law enforcement were able to use data collected by Mollie’s Fitbit to piece together her last hours. This information would eventually lead investigators to the man who is now charged with her first-degree murder. Just this past week, an American couple was saved in Bali after a scooter accident left them both without a way to call local authorities for help. Mikey Lythcott, 36, was able to turn on the roaming data on his cell phone, and with a single bar of service, managed to pen a desperate call for help to his Facebook friends. The United States Consulate in Bali was contacted, and help was sent to the couple’s location. Knowing how well technology can work for us makes it that much more frustrating when we feel it has violated our privacy, such as the aforementioned data-mining that helps target you for specific advertisements.
In addition to impacting the way Americans live their lives, surveillance capitalism has already become a constipator for many well-established areas of the economy, such as journalism, transportation, and—in a fascinating irony—private investigations. While surveillance capitalism has certainly had a significant impact on American culture, there are many who have a misunderstanding of its omniscient power. In a recent article titled, “A Private Investigator on Living in a Surveillance Culture,” a private investigator named Judith Coburn, shared an anecdote where a client completely underestimated the available technology:
“Two lawyers working on a death-penalty appeal once came to see me about working on their case. There had been a murder at a gas station in Oakland 10 years earlier. Police reports from the time indicated that there was a notorious “trap house” where crack addicts were squatting across from the gas station. The lawyers wanted me to find and interview some of those addicts to discover whether they’d seen anything that night. It would be a quick job, they assured me. (Translation: they would pay me chump change.) I could just find them on the Internet. I thought they were kidding. Crack addicts aren’t exactly known for their Internet presence.”
Frustrations like these are rampant in investigation firms across the country, but the advancements in technology do not prevent the use of tried-and-true analog methods, such as old-fashioned tailing surveillance, or telephone ruses without the use of any fancy phone surveillance tech.
The concept of the “right to be forgotten” was forged in the European Union, with individuals voicing their concerns about their inability to “determine the development of their life in an autonomous way, without being perpetually or periodically stigmatized as a consequence of a specific action performed in the past.” Given the surveillance tech available to citizens, both private and public, it sounds like an unattainable status for anyone who uses social media, the internet, or walks by a security camera on their way to work every day.
In February, 2018, NPR published an article titled, “Google Has Received 650,000 ‘Right To Be Forgotten’ Requests Since 2014,” detailing the mountain of requests fielded by the multi-national technology company to remove certain URLs from their search results on the condition the content is “inadequate, irrelevant or excessive in relation to the purposes of the processing.” The article goes on to say this means it is up to the discretion of a private company to determine what is in the best interests of the people who use their services, which is a tall-order in a capitalist society. Whether the policy proposed in the EU will ever be universally enforced—both in Europe and around the world—education regarding this newfound culture in which we find ourselves is paramount to protecting yourself and your loved ones from the evils of surveillance capitalism.
Carie McMichael is the Communication and Media Specialist for Lauth Investigations International, a private investigation firm based in Indianapolis, Indiana–delivering proactive and diligent solutions for over 30 years. For more information, please visit our website.
Melbourne, April 26 (ANI): Social networking sites like Facebook are being used by private investigators to uncover false claims made to insurance companies.
International experts have revealed that the sites are ‘gold’ for identity thieves, reports Courier Mail.
They are perusing photos and comments made on the sites of claimants and witnesses to see if they tally with statements made to insurance companies.
In some cases investigators are uncovering photos showing people who claim to have injuries preventing them from working doing activities such as skiing.
But sites such as Facebook also have become a tool for investigators to uncover people doing undeclared jobs, to track down those who owe debts and uncover the shady past of job applicants.
Investigation firm MPOL Investigations Australia has an agent dedicated to searching the social networking sites.
Using a social networking site, the company discovered that a claimant who was suspected of having undeclared income did have a hidden part-time job.
While the Facebook site had a privacy block, the investigators were able to search an open “friend” site, which provided a clear link to their subject.
The investigation firm used photos on a social networking site to prove that people who claimed their home had been broken into were at home at the time, having a party.
Julia Robson, the company’s social networking specialist, said one person claiming to have a foot injury posted family pictures showing him playing soccer.
Craig Adams of Brisbane’s CA Investigations said information gleaned from social networking sites mostly was used to gauge how much people exaggerated their claims.
He said in one case a woman who claimed she had a psychological injury and could not socialise, posted Facebook photos of herself sitting in bars on Melbourne Cup Day. (ANI)