A private investigator explains what to look out for if you are a victim of a catfish scam.


This isn’t your typical catfishing story because this wasn’t your typical victim. Vena is clever, perceptive, and with her sense of humor, probably the target catfishers "Thomas" or "James" weren’t expecting.

Yep, twice. But financially unscathed if we’re looking for an initial silver lining.

With a background in law enforcement and in human resources, her spidey senses were cranked up to eleven recently after she was approached on Match.com by "Thomas", a successful independent contractor. She had previously been a member of the dating app with some prior success.

"I got this message from this guy named Thomas.  It was really short and it just said 'sweet profile.' I looked at the pictures and he didn’t look like a supermodel or anything so I said 'this is probably a legit guy.' We started exchanging emails. It was like one email a day and that went on for about a week into early May when he asked 'can we text, can we talk by text, can you give me your number.'"

Vena gave "Thomas" her number and they began texting… a lot. "At one point I was trying to screencap them, but there were so many I couldn’t fit them all anymore." She was encouraged, after not dipping her toe in the dating pool for quite a while.

"I thought 'this is so awesome, and this guy is so cool and he tells me what he does for a living and he has a son and he’s widowed and he’s not pulling on emotional heartstrings in an obvious way. There were some things that made you think ‘this is a nice guy.'"

"But then he starts to come on pretty strong, pretty early," Vena continued.  "He starts talking about like 'you’re everything I’m looking for in a woman.'" Nearly a week after virtually meeting, "Thomas" was already talking marriage, but Vena was still skeptical of the bait.

"At the same time there was still a rational part of my brain that was like 'you need to check this guy out. If you really end up getting married to this guy you should see if there is anything going on in this guy’s background.' So that’s when I contacted Trustify."

Citing the more personal service, Vena described the experience working with Suzie, the investigator provided by Trustify. "She was very personable. I was ready for someone who was very matter-of-fact, which would’ve been fine for me, but she was more like, almost like a friend. She wanted to know what my story was, kind of telling me a little bit about her background and what got her into private investigator work and the kind of things she’s seen through doing these checks and letting me know it was smart of me to take a look."

Suzie was very fair minded when she advised Vena during the investigation, reminding her that she was still dealing with someone ("Thomas") who might be in an altered mindspace. "She said 'he still could be who he says he is… But be careful, careful for your money, careful for your daughter (Vena has an 8-year old daughter).' She was really nice about it – had that nice blend of being between open-minded and make sure you watch these things, no matter what you do."

"(Suzie) told me in the end 'I can’t find anything bad on this guy but I can’t find anything that says he is who he says he is. Something in the information you’ve given me isn’t correct or I’d be coming back with stuff.'"

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And Vena was frustrated too, running her own personal investigation using the first, middle and last names that "Thomas" had provided, recognizing red flags. "Of course everything in his background – his own self-disclosed background – would explain some of the reasons why you couldn’t find him. You can’t check on his marriage because he was married in Australia. You can’t check on his employer because he’s self-employed, things like that."  There was even a reason for the Ohio phone number "Thomas" was also using. "I asked him about that and he said 'oh, yeah, I used to live there.'"

It was during a last-minute business trip to South Africa, where "Thomas" found himself in a pickle: he lost both his cell phone and laptop. More pieces started to fall into place for Vena.

"As soon as he told me that I was like 'OMG, I totally know this story.' When I messaged him 'do you need money?' he got all outraged. 'No, all I ever wanted was your love and you asked if I needed money. I can’t believe this is how you would respond in my hour of need,'" she recounted. When Vena asked if his clients were helping him, even to get a passport, he said they weren’t. "I thought this was a big load of bull and by this time I felt I was really on to him."

The heavy amount of traveling as an independent contractor also threw up another red flag. "That was the piece that let him travel all over so you can’t find him, you can’t meet up with him, because he’s always traveling."

There was one more test that Vena had for "Thomas." "One of the things that also pushed me to that edge was he said he was traveling, so we couldn’t meet, but I was like 'if we can’t meet, you could send me flowers to my work' and he never did. And that was one way I knew something was up too. Between that and the investigation I knew something wasn’t right."

Catfishing – like all scams  – has evolved. Profiles are more nuanced, using stolen identities instead of stock photos. Its not just an individual effort of someone bored in the basement or a jilted ex trying to get back at someone, there are now teams of scammers who work with each other creating a small village of fake profiles.

Between Vena and Suzie, they were able identify some of the hallmark tactics that catfishers use to reel in their victims.

  • A single parent with a child
  • Becoming emotionally attached and looking for commitment immediately
  • A background story that doesn’t check out – can’t verify a job, a previous marriage, pictures can’t be verified
  • Always traveling, never able to meet in person

When "Thomas" refused to send flowers, that’s when Vena cut the line and ended the nearly month-long adventure. "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."

There's a strategy behind her story, too. "I felt that let him exit the scene without me directly accusing him of lying, because I’m sure this guy is good at what he does. Let me give him an exit that will not make him mad and will also explain why he’ll never hear from me again."

Why didn’t Vena alert Match.com about this catfisher? "I worry about that person somehow coming back for retaliation against me. As bad as it is knowing this person is out there, going to victimize someone else – I’m sure he’s on to the next person. My friends say 'you should report him,' but this person knows a lot about me now."

Catfishers don't just use dating sites to find victims. In another encounter, Vena was approached by "James." “So I got a friend request (on Instagram) from some guy named James and I looked at his pictures and I was like 'he kinda cute' and so I accepted his friend request." She immediately asked "What motivated you to message me or whatever?" When he replied "Oh, I thought you had a cute picture," that’s when their conversations started over on another app, Whats App.

"James" told Vena he was a mechanical engineer from Scotland. Naturally, she asked about his job. "I get this paragraph that was full of jargon, not the way you would explain your job if you were trying to talk to a layman. So I read the first one and then 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?'"

After five minutes of no response, Vena signed off, thinking that would be the end of that. "But the next day I get a message from him and I’m thinking, 'I can not believe this guy is back after that.'"

Instead of ignoring his message, Vena tried to spook this catfish. "I replied ‘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. By the way I think they have also contacted some of your 300 female (Instagram) followers and they might be talking to them too. 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."

Other than being out a membership fee to Match.com and having her hopes smashed, Vena realized what many others are starting to now: catfishing is evolving – rapidly.  

The slow rollout and planting the seeds – a nondescript profile, a person with a normal job, who looked normal and not overly attractive. The Ohio phone number. The inability to fact-check a work history or career. The clinical job descriptions and awkwardly formal conversations.

"He ("Thomas") was really savvy. But I think he was sitting in South Africa the whole time, and Suzie agreed."   

"Eventually what he did was he gave me a number in South Africa and began calling me from a number in South Africa. But my investigator told me before this South African development that a lot of these catfishers are in South Africa. So when the story turned that way I was like 'here we go' he said that."

And, the majority of the catfishers are operating overseas – Nigerian Prince Charmings if you will.

"I can appreciate the game, I can appreciate it, objectively," said Vena. "Like 'you’re good at this. But why won’t you use your powers for good?'"

Vena hasn’t given up on dating, and has found another online medium to meet people. "A friend of mine at work suggested to me to meet people on this cool app called MeetUp and I just started looking into it. I like this MeetUp concept better. It’s not like singles-focused but you can meet people in real life that share interests, so I’m going to go this MeetUp way."

"I figure I’ll dip my toe in the water again. As much as I’m totally like 'I’m not going to do Match again' I still kind of want to get in the game. I don’t want to let it ruin my whole possible outlook. I feel like I need to jump back in and I’ve already signed up for some Meet Up things."


Video by Stacy Blackburn

Bernadette Vielhaber

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