In 2010, MTV’s “Catfish” made waves, first as a feature-length documentary and subsequently as a popular TV series spinoff. The show popularized the term “catfish” as it follows couples who have met online but never in person; often one, if not both, halves of the romantic entanglements on the show are not being honest about their identity, (these are the so-called “catfish”) creating fake profiles and using false information to trick their partner into falling in love.
Catfishing, while emotionally damaging, can also have very real financial consequences as it has become a popular means of attack for scammers looking to trick their victims into love and out of money. In fact, in 2020 romance scams accounted for a record loss of $304 million — 50% more than the year prior. As the world of online dating becomes increasingly more popular, here are some things you need to know to protect yourself.
Spotting a Catfish
It’s not uncommon for romance scammers to have multiple profiles and work to build relationships with a number of different people at one time. Because they’re trying to endear themselves to so many people quickly, these fraudsters will often use the same lines and phrases repeatedly, showering their victims with compliments, virtual affections, and even small gifts.
The scammer will typically use attractive photos that garner the attentions of many and chat with their victims frequently before launching into a story that leads to a request for money. The goal is to build infatuation and confidence in the character they’ve created, and they may even go so far as to propose marriage — whatever it takes to make their victims feel special and in control. Especially with so many people turning to online dating or feeling lonely throughout the pandemic, these types of scammers are skilled at spotting and befriending vulnerable people online.
Some telltale signs of a romance scammer are people who claim to be living or traveling outside of the country, or who seem to always have a reason to avoid in-person meet-ups. Assuming the identity of military personnel or traveling medics are popular ways to sell this story. The most common ways that a scammer will ask for money is either via wire transfer or gift card — maybe for a phone card to keep talking to you or something more serious like a medical emergency. One common tactic is actually leading victims to believe that their partner has sent them a large sum of money that the person then needs returned to them or someone else, thus convincing someone to launder stolen funds. A good rule of thumb with all potential scams is to avoid dealing with money online unless it’s through a reputable source like your bank or financial institution.
Tips for Staying Safe Online
- As with all potential scams, give yourself a second to think before you act. Scammers want to establish a relationship as quickly as possible and use your trust and affection to rush you into handing over money or information. Ask questions and be aware of any inconsistencies in their answers. If something seems (cat)fishy, trust your gut!
- Never hand over money to someone online — that includes gift cards. Even if someone you care about is “in a jam” or needs a “temporary loan,” say no. Period.
- Do your homework! There are some quick ways to determine if someone is being upfront with you, like doing a reverse image search of their photos. This tactic is a favorite of the hosts of “Catfish: The TV Show,” and you can take another page out of their book by being wary of online love interests who repeatedly refuse or find excuses not to meet in person, over the phone, or via video chat.
- If you suspect that someone online isn’t who they say they are, you should stop talking to them immediately.
- Be careful of your own digital presence — scammers can use what you post online to better target you and gain your trust. When dealing with social media and dating sites, it’s important to always keep your personal information…well, personal.
- If it seems too good to be true, it might be. What do your friends and family think? Seek the advice of the real life people who know you best, and be aware of love interests who try to isolate you from those you trust.
If you think that you’ve been a victim of any kind of scam, you should report it to the FTC immediately at ftc.gov/complaint. If you made a payment in the form of a gift card, you can also contact the company that issued the gift card as soon as possible to alert them of the fraud and see if they can refund your money. Here are some popular places that scammers often request gift cards to and where to contact.
Love doesn’t have to hurt! When communicating with someone online, think carefully, trust your instincts, and never send them money.