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What is catfishing and how do I avoid it?

Marcela OteroMar 16, 2017

Online dating can be a fun, exciting way to meet new people outside of your normal pool of friends and acquaintances. But that selfsame anonymity can also be a double-edged sword, and open you up to a whole world of internet scammers.

At a time when more and more Americans are turning to online dating, the stats from the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) shouldn’t be surprising: in 2016, they reported receiving almost 15,000 complaints categorized as romance scams or confidence frauds, with associated losses surpassing $230 million. The real numbers may be as much as 15% higher, though, as many victims are too embarrassed or ashamed to report being tricked.

Most people would picture the victims as a bunch of lonely, middle-aged women desperately seeking love, but the reality couldn’t be further from that. Men and women of all ages and professions can and do fall for these scams, as the perpetrators are experts at building trust over periods that can stretch over months, crafting a persona catered to their prey’s tastes and needs. The salient common characteristic of the targets is a higher-than-average belief in romantic love, and this makes them easier to manipulate.

The criminals typically create fake profiles on dating websites, with pictures of attractive men and women that have been filched off of public social media accounts or are of B-list foreign celebrities. Though there are some cases of catfishing in which genuinely troubled people looking for an emotional connection assume fake identities, most of these scams are pernicious and financially motivated. Usually working out of West Africa, these so-called Yahoo Boys —due to the prevalent use of free Yahoo email accounts— woo five or more people at a time, posing as anything from widowed professors, models, and U.S. soldiers, to contractors or oil-rig engineers.

After the initial connection, the con artists move the conversation off the dating website quickly, preferring frequent and intense direct text messaging, email, and eventually phone calls. Once the mark is firmly committed and in love, the requests for money begin. Usually it’s for small amounts as the scammer tests the waters, and then escalates into bigger and bigger payouts, allegedly for medical emergencies, plane tickets, or work crises. Occasionally the scam takes a different form, and instead of asking for money, the victim is asked to transfer funds between accounts or receive money and wire it somewhere. Sometimes, even after they realize they’ve been duped, they get roped into participating in swindling other people.

So, how can the romantically-inclined online dater avoid being conned?

The good news is that there are clear warning signs and steps you can take, if somebody contacts you out of the blue and seems to good to be true:

Search for their picture - Copy the images they’ve sent and run them through a reverse image search engine like TinEye or Google Images. If they come up associated with another name, city or job than they’ve said, the pictures were probably stolen from another person’s profile. If you’ve been emailing, check their address against romancescams.org, a website that compiles addresses of known fraudsters.

Sleuth a bit - Some online stalking can prevent a lot of heartache in the future. Look up their name, and investigate any social media accounts you can find. Fake profiles tend to have very few online friends. Even when in pictures with other people, nobody’s tagged. If there’s a dearth of information, and the person claims to own a business abroad, check with the relevant U.S. Embassy to confirm its existence.

No webcam - If they claim to not have a webcam, or there always seems to be some sort of technical problem, it may be a sign they’re not who they say they are. Ask them to take a picture holding a unique phrase or object, and send it to you. If they can’t comply, it’s a definite red flag.

Bad spelling and grammar - Far be it from us to espouse becoming a member of the grammar police, but since most of these scammers tend to be foreign, it can be difficult for them to communicate correctly in English. Check for dialectal and idiomatic phrases that are common to the area they claim to be from.

Eager to get off the dating website - This is such a common theme in romantic scam stories that it should automatically set off alarm bells in your head. A good tip here is to always use a unique and different email address for your dating profiles.

Rushed emotional intensity - Try to maintain a level head. Sure, it’s incredibly flattering to think you’ve inspired soulmate-level, Romeo & Juliet love in just a month, but stop and think for a minute. The single most-used technique by con artists is rushing you into a heightened state of intensity, impairing your judgement and increasing your vulnerability. Think back at how long you’ve known this person, and if they started wooing you a bit too quickly.

Asking for money - You are not an ATM machine. The moment anybody you’ve met online asks you to to carry out a shady financial transaction, back off, no matter what sob story they come up with. The problem is that perpetrators usually only start on this tactic once they’re certain you’re caught in their web, and it can be hard to face the facts. Ask yourself this: why are they asking you for money, instead of family members or friends?

The main problem with these scams is not just their prevalence, but the way in which they prey on people’s most intimate hopes and dreams. People who use online dating wholeheartedly, whether seeking love or companionship, shouldn’t have to be terrified that they might end up victimized by the unscrupulous. The issue is compounded by the difficulty of prosecuting these crimes and the near impossibility of getting money back.

We cannot be more emphatic about the importance of doing research before giving away any personal information online. This isn’t to say that online dating won’t find you the love you’re seeking, and a good place to start is our 10 best of the year!