When you think of catfishers (people who pretend to be someone else online so that they can lure unsuspecting people into a relationship with them), do you think of creepy people with a weird (and cruel) hobby sitting around in basements and pretending to be someone else? If so, your image of them would be wrong.

While catfishing might have started out as a solo hobby for strange people, it has since turned into a multi-million dollar industry dominated by organized crime elements. 

Recently, a federal judge sentenced a former intellectual copyright lawyer to 7 years in prison for his part in laundering more than $2 million in funds derived from catfishing schemes. 

According to prosecutors, “Although the Defendant’s money laundering activities were done primarily at the direction of a particular co-conspirator, he was not an unthinking subordinate... Indeed, the Defendant’s participation in the conspiracy was marked by attempts to minimize outside scrutiny and reduce his exposure.”


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In this case, the catfishing scam wasn't the only business that this attorney and his co-conspirators were involved in. The Defendant was originally implicated by a sting that was targeting arms dealers.

Needless to say, catfishing is big money these days. Trustify has handled hundreds of catfishing cases, and by our own estimates our clients have handed nearly $5 million to catfish scammers before they requested an investigation from us.  Thankfuly, we were able help end these damaging relationships. In one case we traced a single transfer of more than $75,000 to a professional scammer in the UK. 

In our experience, catfishing has gone from a solo operation to a sophisticated one often involving teams of 6-12 operators that work together to gain the trust of single men an women, and eventually siphon off their assets. 

These catfishing teams create multiple fake social media and dating site profiles of attractive men and women living glamorous - yet inaccessible - lifestyles. Unfortunately, this is not expecially difficult to do. Photos of solideirs, for instance, are available on a variety of social media sites, and there is little to no identity verification required to create social media and dating profiles online. When these scammers are challenged, they usually present faked military IDs.


Pictured: stolen photos and a faked passport scan pulled from a catfisher's profile

They then link these profiles together with other members of their team to generate the connections and activity that one would expect to see on a real profile. Sometimes they will even enlist their team members to provide references. In one case we handled, a victim was referred to a friend of the catfisher who gushed about him to the victim, dispelling any of her doubts about his identity.

For the scam to work, a combination glamour and inaccessibility on the part of the catfishers is key: the glamour to attract a suitor, and then the inaccessibility to generate plausible excuses as to why they cannot meet, call, or otherwise get in contact with the victims. 

We have dealt with catfishers that have pretended to be soldiers, oil rig workers, international spies, wealthy jet-setting business people, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, doctors working with Medicines Sans Frontiers - anything that is attractive and yet requires travel. 

Usually, they start relationships by approaching victims by private message, sending them compliments and praise. While they get turned down often there are, as they say, "plenty of fish in the sea."

Many of these catfishers even string along multiple victims at once to maximize their income. In past instances we have even seen victims arguing with each other on a catfisher's Facebook timeline over who was actually in a relationship with the scammer, and whether he was cheating on them.

It can be hard for people who haven't seen a catfish in action to understand how they can convince their victims to give them so much money. However, this persuasiveness can be explained by three factors:

  1. Loneliness: Most victims are middle-aged or older, single, and often feel that they have few prospects in their immediate community. Catfishers are adept at selecting targets with these vulnerabilities. 
  2. Praise: the amount of positive reinforcement, praise, compliments, and affection that these catfishers heap on their victims is hard to overstate. This is more effective than you might think, especially for people vulnerable to this sort of thing. 
  3. Trust. This is the real kicker. Catfishers will first ask for a small amount of money, say $25, for something inconsequential like a fine or long-distance calling fees. They then immediately pay this back, dispelling any concerns the victim might have, building trust, and paving the way for them to ask for larger amounts of money later. 

These techniques combine to create a powerful bond between catfisher and victim. In most of Trustify's catfishing investigations most of the investigator's time is spent gathering overwhelming evidence that the client is in fact being catfished. This is not for any legal reason. This is mainly to have enough proof to convince the client of what's actually happening to them.

Over 80% of our clients often reject the initial findings of the investigator, effectively refusing to believe that they are being catfished. Convincing the client is often the most difficult part of the case. Many catfishers do not hide their identities particularly well, and often steal their identities wholesale from other people. Despite this evidence, many people cling to the belief that they have found someone who they can trust and confide in. 

So, next time you hear of a friend being catfished (or you suspect you may have encountered a catfish yourself,) remember that it's not just some petty criminal on the other side of the screen; often you have encountered the tip of an organized crime iceberg that can involve far more dangerous activities like sex trafficking, arms dealing, and more.

If you think that you or someone you know is being catfished, request a consultation with our team.

Elliot Rysenbry

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