We’re 20+ years into the modern age of online dating, and because we can’t have nice things, catfishing continues to evolve. Whether the intention is to scam a victim for money or to emotionally manipulate a stranger or even someone you know, “one point seems obvious: when they keep their secret, the relationship flourishes; when they tell the truth, the relationship dies,” said Dr. Kelly Campbell.

Either way, this parasitic byproduct of the digital age will continue to change as we move further and further away from actual human interaction. Catfishing has become a business in itself, just like online dating. (And if you’re looking for some “fun facts”, DatingAdvice.Com posted this doozy in May.) In our three short years, Trustify has seen a lot of catfishing cases. We’ve put together this post with some customer stories and our expertise that we’ve gathered so far.

Catfishing Isn’t Just An Individual Effort

These catfishing teams create multiple fake social media and dating site profiles of attractive men and women living glamorous – yet inaccessible – lifestyles, 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. Another victim was given a phone number to her catfisher’s mother to text details for a future wedding.

According to Melanie (an investigator in our network) they work in groups of up to 12, creating networks of fake profiles that support each other and provide them with collective legitimacy. These networks of scammers call their victims “clients,” and often communicate with many people simultaneously. In the course of her investigations into fake profiles, Melanie has even found two women on Facebook fighting over the same (fake) lover.

Or the enterprise could be bigger. “I know it sounds kind of crazy, but typically a lot of these people are not even in the country,” said another one of our investigators Suzie. “They sit in a room or an office and they’ve got 40-50 people on, you know, that they’re working. From the bit of research that I’ve done on it, what they do is like they have an office space and that’s their job. A lot of the cases I’ve seen now just in recent times, is out of Nigeria.”

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Catfishing – It’s For Money Laundering

A federal judge sentenced a former intellectual copyright lawyer to seven 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.”

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.”

Catfishers Have Trusted, Glamourous, Or Unusual Job Titles

Soldiers, oil rig workers, international spies, wealthy jet-setting business people, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, doctors working with Medicines Sans Frontiers, arms dealers… or just your regular engineers, independent contractors or self-employed. If you have any of these job titles, you could be in a relationship right now. Not only do catfishers create these identities, but they steal them from actual people.

Scammers often use pictures of soldiers because they appear forthright and credible - after all, no one wants to question a serviceman, and who can resist a man in uniform anyway? Moreover, the chaotic lives and limited lines of communication that real active duty servicemen have provides cover for scammers to keep conversations with victims text-based.

These job titles are frequently used by catfishers. They enable them to have a lack of a professional profile on LinkedIn (“I’ve been in the business for years.” “Its top secret, government stuff.”) or give them the excuse to travel internationally and at the last minute so they can’t meet (“It was an emergency in South Africa at one of my projects”) and inevitably there’s a travel snafu (“I lost my passport and credit cards, can you send me some money to cover the hotel and flight home?”). They might even go missing for long periods of time, performing some kind of work that doesn't let them stay online consistently.


When catfishers are confronted with the truth, they often play it off

After Melanie had collected enough evidence that “Peter” was not the soldier the Phoebe was messaging, “she confronted Peter with what my research had found, and of course he denied it.” Even more shockingly, the scammer responded to the accusation by claiming that his account was hacked. He even thanked Phoebe for bringing it to his attention.

Phoebe decided to continue her relationship, despite the evidence that the man she was seeing wasn’t who he claimed to be. All Melanie could do was warn her. “I told her what she was getting into, and what to expect as the scam developed – but she went ahead with it.”

Other catfishers just ignore being called out. Vena had met “James”, an engineer in Scotland who was very verbose and technical about his job. “I get this paragraph that was sort of like full of jargon, not the way you would explain your job if you were trying to talk to a layman. So I read it and I get a second paragraph, but its similar – a bunch of jargon.”

“So I cut and paste the second paragraph and put it in Google and this page comes back for this company that does this kind of work. So I cut and paste the third paragraph that’s on the internet page I found and I send it back to the guy and I’m like ‘hey, do you do this too?’”  

“And then he totally ignores what I said and goes on to something else. And so I was like “Hey, I’m sorry, I’m busy, I’ve got to go, bye.” The next day I get a message from him and I’m like “I can not believe this guy is back after that. He’s back?”

“So he sends me some message and I just message him back and say – because I figure he’s not very smart – I said ‘Hey, I think I need to let you know I think the authorities are monitoring my phone and my server and I think it's in your best interest not to contact me anymore. And by the way I think they have also contacted some of your 300 female followers and they might be talking to them too. And by the way the only way you can make this right with the authorities is to contact the guy’s picture you’re using and let him know what you’ve done.” And that was the end of that one. I blocked him.”

Catfishing Profiles Still Aren’t Perfected - But They’re Improving

While many catfishers have opted to not use photos of the ‘ridiculously good looking’ any more, dating and social media profiles are still a giveaway.

“Peter’s profile had none of the usual indicators that it was genuine. For a start, all of his friends weren’t what you’d expect  - not many soldiers and not much in the way of family,” said Melanie. Despite the profile having recent activity, posts from what appeared to be a continuous deployment, and even comments and praise from friends, there were plenty of signs that Peter’s identity had been faked.

“You’d at least expect to see plenty of activity from loved ones, as well as posts about important life events like the birth of a niece or nephew, or the birthday of a sibling or parent.” Additionally, the man was claiming to be in his 50s, an appropriate dating age bracket for Phoebe, the client. However, the photos show a man who can’t be much older than his early to mid-30s.

Still, the amateurs are out there, using profiles with a few inconsistencies. The person you're corresponding with doesn't have very many candid shots of themselves. Their pictures look professional, and they're incredibly attractive. The name on their profile doesn't match the URL name. They have very few friends on their profile, or they have too many. These are possible signs of a fake profile used for catfishing.

Victims Often Can’t Believe It

Over 80% of our clients often reject the initial findings of the investigator, 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.

Trustify has handled hundreds of catfishing cases, and by our own estimates our clients have lost over $5 million to catfish scammers before they requested an investigation from us. In one case we traced a single transfer of more than $75,000 to a professional scammer in the UK.

It’s hard to believe – if you are in a vulnerable place in life – that the person you’ve found who seems to care about you based on all your interactions is actually a fraud.

Why Do People Keep Falling For These Scams?

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.
    Catfishers do their homework, just like any other “respectable” scammer. They study social media profiles for a person’s relationship status. They may go as far as to search public obituaries.
  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. “The mind has a powerful way of weaving intricate narratives about reality when in love, according to Dr. Goali Saedi.  “After all, they have elected a far less threatening mode of communication — one in which their physical presence is not required, and where there is a far greater sense of control in the relationship. They need not engage in conversational exchanges that require a certain facility and reciprocal dance. They can wait, think, and respond at their own pace, time, and convenience.”

How Can You Find Out If You’re Dating a Catfish?

First, write down all the information you have about the person. List it under what you know, and what they told you. These could be different facts. Write down their name and the name of the people they called family or friends. Inspect their profile and make note of inconsistencies.

You can do your own reverse image search too. Using Google Chrome, right-click any image you see on a website or in search results. Then, click “Search Google for image.” A new tab will open with your results. If you’re using Firefox, download the Search by Image extension, right-click any image you see on a website or in search results and then click “Search Image on Google.” A new tab will open with your results. (There are plenty of other tutorials and services on the web too.) This search will show you the origin of their photos, and where else they are being used.

A private investigator can help find out whether the person is lying to you, based on the details you were given. It's likely that the person who is catfishing you didn't give their real name, but an investigator can pin down details that will reveal more information about them, which can lead to their real name.

But most of all: don’t give them anything – money, gifts, gift cards, etc. If they won’t meet you, send a picture, talk to you in person, Skype or FaceTime, there’s a very high chance chance it's a catfisher. Any relationship worth its salt is a give and take, and doesn’t begin with love and marriage in week two and “hey, can you send me a couple grand, I’m stuck in Tunisia on business.” You are worth more than that.

Walk away – block their number, their email, their profile, everything. Ghost them, or tell them a tall tale in return, like Vena did. “I had to send him an email that said ‘You know, you’re right, I’m not devoted to you, I’m not as strong as you, and I have to tell you something and that’s I’m a substance abuser and I’ve decided to check myself into rehab.’ And that’s the only thing I could do to shake this guy off of me and it worked.”

Even if you have given money away, it will probably be deemed a “gift” so there is no legal recourse, unless there is an additional felony involved. And there are so many fake profiles out there that contacting a dating site to let them know probably won’t make a difference. Revenge of some sort might feel like the thing you want to do, but keep in mind, this person knows a lot about you, and could use that information for a different, nefarious reason.  

Danny Boice
Danny Boice

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