Finding a soulmate is pretty tough, but here’s another reason to keep your guard up. Facebook (FB) launches a dating app later this year, and users are already seeing an increase in “catfishers”—the crooks who pretend to be a lover in an attempt to pull off a romance scam.
Michelle Amburgey, a 56-year-old who runs a holistic healing business, said she received six sketchy Facebook “friend requests” over just one weekend. Amburgey said she’s always seen some suspected catfishing attempts on the social media network, but never with that kind of volume. Other users say much the same thing, and experts maintain that this is not surprising.
“Crooks are using Facebook to target vulnerable and lonely people. It seems fair to bet that the same criminals will see a new Facebook dating service as a huge opportunity, “Danny Boice, president of Trustify, said the private investigation firm.
Amburgey said that she wasn’t about to take the bait to confirm that the odd “friend” requests were, indeed, from con artists, but all the warning signs were there.
“They were all older men who looked similar,” said Amburgey. Each had a reason to be out of the country and thus could not meet in person. “One of them was military; one was with an oil company; one was in aerospace. None of them had a lot of personal information about their profiles. It was creepy.”
Unfortunately, online dating is subject to fraud even in the best circumstances—both innocuous and criminal. Some 54% of online daters believe that someone they’ve matched has been misinterpreted in some way, said Aaron Smith, Associate Director at Pew Research Center.
It can be as simple as lying about your age or looking or trying to pretend that you’re single when you’re married. However, the most common online dating scam is that catfishers are looking to con victims out of money.
Over the last three years, Trustify has investigated the catfishing cons that have cost victims more than $5 million. More than 85 percent of these scams started on or were part of Facebook, Boice said.
Boice believes that scammers are targeting Facebook because of the site’s con-friendly demographics and a large number of potential victims. According to SproutSocial, 83 percent of adult women use the site, as do 75 percent of adult men. And unlike many other social media sites that most appeal to millennials, Facebook’s audience has matured—an essential factor for con artists looking for lonely people with money.
According to a recent study by the Better Business Bureau of romance scams, approximately half of the victims reported their age was over 50. And victims are twice as likely as men to be women.
How could you spot a catfisher? There are five red flags here.
If you have a relationship with someone who has approached you on Facebook, take a few minutes to search for a Google Image. (Call Google Images and then drag and drop your photo to the search bar.) If the name that appears in that search is not the name of your suitor—or if it is a photo that comes up multiple times and is associated with several characters, you will be warned. You’re most likely dealing with a scammer who has purloined attractive photographs and uses them to create a fake online identity.
Con artists are also reluctant to talk on the phone, through Facetime, or meet in person. The reason for this, of course, is apparent. If the Midwestern athletic hunk you think you match is a thin Nigerian telemarketer with a heavy accent, even talking on the phone is likely to raise alarms. Coffee or video chatting would undoubtedly ruin the scam.
Of course, a good crook will find many plausible reasons to hinder or delay personal contact. He or she may claim to have phone problems, be in a place with poor cell reception, or be deployed in the U.S. Army, where the time difference could make in-person chats impractical.
But do you believe that the excuses are genuine? They might be for a while, but they might be wary. If you’ve been talking to someone for weeks or months, and you haven’t seen a person’s face in anything but a picture, consider it a warning.
Time is a crook’s enemy. While you may be sending an email or text message with a potential beau a couple of times a week, a con artist is likely to contact you multiple times a day and fall in love with you in a matter of weeks. Crooks specifically target people they think might be lonely and gain the victim’s trust by being excellent listeners and emotionally supportive.
Unfortunately, that’s just part of the con—and they’re good at it, Boice said. One in five victims, who were suspicious enough to hire Trustify to check out an online love interest, ended up rejecting the investigator’s findings, Boice said.
“We are all human, and sometimes emotions take over,” he said. “A lot of victims also don’t report stealing money because they’re too embarrassed to admit they’ve been caught.”
Sharing compromising photos
Romance scammers are increasingly asking victims to share compromising photos, Boice said. They may even start the process by sharing one—or many—with you. The scammer isn’t embarrassed to do this, of course, because the photo isn’t really about him/her. However, if you share a real image, the scammer will likely use it later to extort you.
“Sexploitation is the fastest-growing strategy,” Boice said. “If you send an intimate picture of yourself, they’re going to blackmail you by saying that if you don’t do what they want, they’re going to post your photo on the internet.”
Requests for money
The final step—or many steps, depending on the victim’s gullibility—is a monetary appeal. The catfisher may maintain that he/she wants to visit you in person, but he/she can’t afford the cost for some reason. Perhaps the bank is unfairly holding its funds, or some emergency has economically wiped out your beauty—and still needs money for, say, medical trouble or some other unexpected expense.
If you send the money, the scammer is not going to disappear. He/she is going to ask for more to cover a new emergency and another. Eventually, the victims are wise and stop sending cash. But many send thousands of dollars before they put an end to it. At a time when neither emotional nor photographic blackmail is enough to get you to spend more money, your crook is likely to move on, leaving you more destitute but wiser.