Catfishing victims can suffer both a financial and emotional toll. Why are these scams so successful, and the victims so easily manipulated?
*Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
Story after story, the question probably crosses your mind: why would someone fall for, and then stay in, a catfishing relationship? No two stories are the same – and it isn’t as simple as being “gullible” or “lonely”.
Anna’s* two-year relationship with “Tom*” came out of the blue. “He just text me one day … I didn’t respond to him for three weeks, because I didn’t know who this guy was and how did he got my number?” She left the message sit before going through her archives three weeks later.
When she was scrolling through her missed calls, the mysterious phone number caught her eye and piqued her curiosity. "So I phoned him back and I said, ‘how did you get my phone number? What do you want with me. Do I know you?’ So he explained himself and he said well he got me on Google. I don’t know how Google has my number…”
The two began trading phone calls that week. Anna learning that “Tom” was from Maryland and that he had been in the Army, but was now working as an salesman. Soon after the conversations began, “Tom” was off on a trip to China, promising to come visit Anna when he came back.
As with most catfishing scenarios, our casanova finds himself in some adversity. “He was in trouble in China – gotten into big trouble over there and he needed help with money.” Initially, “Tom” asked Anna for $100,000 and when she rebuffed, he lowered his request to $80,000.
“I said, ‘I don’t have $80,000’ so he said that, ‘Well I need you. If you love me, you’ll help me. Do whatever you can to go get it.’" Anna was flabbergasted, "Well how in the hell am I going to get $80,000? I was arguing back and forth with him.”
While Anna wasn’t able to send “Tom” the $80,000, she did provide him some funds. “Over the course of the two years that we were talking, he kept asking me for money and he needed money for food. That first Christmas, he said that he was coming (back to the United States). He was short on his flight, so I sent him $500 because he said he needed money for the flight. I gave him my last $500 I had. So we didn’t have Christmas. I felt so broke for Christmas – he never showed up.”
“The need for friendship is a huge driving force for people – the longing to belong to a social support system plays a strong role in driving us to befriend others,” according to Suzanne Degges-White. In her post in Psychology Today she identifies that based on the early interactions that lead to friendship, we don’t expect that relationship to turn toxic.
And that could be another underlying element in catfishing: you finally make a connection with someone and you never expect it to turn. How could you make that deep and caring connection so quickly and then it becomes toxic, almost abusive? Why would that person who claims they’ve “felt like they’ve known you forever” or “wants to spend the rest of my life with you” take advantage of you?
Degges-White explains how people can become stuck in a toxic relationship and not be able to get out. “The abuser/user has the power to convince the relational partner that they actually “deserve” the poor treatment. When a person experiences the cycle of abuse long enough, she or he may grow to believe that their behavior is to blame for the toxicity in the relationship.” You take the blame, try to change yourself to be “better” to a toxic person.
“I hired an investigator to look into him, and because I wanted to know who I was dealing with,” Anna added. “During the course of two years he showed his personality (of a narcissistic personality). And how he would treat me: he was treating me that way that like if I didn’t send him money, he’d be an (redacted) you know. He’d call me names. He’d call me a stupid woman. He’d would just totally just turn into a monster.”
“So you know, it was just like half of the time when we’re fighting, he was just calling me names and calling me down and then he’d be sweet after, when I sent him money. He’d be all sweet and charming. You know they begin to pinpoint areas of how he’s dealing with you. You pick up on these things. Because scammers, they’re crafty.”
“Tom’s” Dr. Jekyl / Mr. Hyde routine fits the description of a toxic relationship perfectly:
- You feel worse – not better – after spending time together
- You avoid the person, or delay responses to texts or phone calls
- You are always there for them, and they seem to like you when they need something from you, but they are never there when you need them.
- They isolate you from other relationships in your life, tearing down other relationships in your life.
When “Tom” first contacted Anna, she was still grieving after the loss of her husband. “I didn’t want to be alone you know and I just can’t handle being alone. So when he came along, it just kind of distracted me you know and I felt maybe there’s hope after all.”
“You know people need to get counseling for being deprogrammed from this. Because it is hard to break away from it,” she said. “If you need help, you need help trying to separate yourself from this scammer. Who do you believe, how do you believe, and how do you break away?”
If a relationship seems too good to be true, that new person may be playing a role they know you need. We still don’t know how “Tom” found Anna’s number, but as romance scams continue to evolve, these catfishing scammers will find alternatives to dating sites or social media. Their need to manipulate and scam others seems never ending.
Video by Stacy Blackburn