Don’t Fall For These Online Dating Scams
Just a few years back, the word “catfish” referred solely to a funny looking sea creature that’s quite tasty when breaded, fried, and served with a side of hushpuppies. Over the past decade, however, catfishing has taken on a new, sinister meaning. If you’re being catfished, that means you’ve become involved, most likely in a romantic way, with someone who’s not as they present themselves to be.
While the term “catfishing” dates back to a 2010 documentary (via Verywell Family) about a young man whose 19-year-old girlfriend turned out to be a bored housewife, the practice itself has been with us since the pen-and-ink days (possibly the chisel-and-stone tablet days). New technology, however, has made dating scams more prevalent than ever. If you’ve ever fallen victim to such a scam and you feel like the world’s biggest fool, it may be some consolation to know you’re in good company.
Even a star football player like former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o could be reeled in by a girlfriend who turned out to be a dude… one who carried out the hoax so far as to fake her/his own death from leukemia. Meri Brown from Sister Wives also got catfished… as if the whole polygamy thing wasn’t enough to deal with. How can you protect yourself from dating scams? The List spoke with YouTube scambusters Ashton Bingham & Art Kulik, CEOs of Trilogy Media, to get their advice on steering clear of lying lovers and fraudulent flames.
How do these scammers operate?
While some instances of catfishing seem to be the product of nothing more than bored people messing around, other catfishers have far more nefarious ends in sight. Bingham calls romance cons “some of the most vile types of scams out there,” explaining that this is because “not only do they cause fear and shame for victims, but they play on another vulnerable emotion — love.”
Each scam begins with some type of impersonation, whether the person is completely misrepresenting their age, gender, financial status, etc. or they are just putting on a different (and obviously more agreeable) personality. Eventually, however, these scams all tend to lead toward one goal: separating you from your money. “Sometimes,” says Bingham, “it’s as simple as them asking for gift cards to fix their phone. Other times,” he goes on to say, “it’s much more elaborate — convincing you to give them your personal banking information, Social Security number, or wire transfers of large sums of money.”
As to how scammers achieve their desired results, Kulik says they “connect with you on various dating apps, develop ‘relationships’ with you, [and] play on your emotions. Basically, he explains, scammers will try to “work any angle they can to get you to send them money and/or personal information.”
Where are you most likely to be scammed?
Each and every app, website, or other form of technology devoted to dating is bound to attract its share of scammers. As Bingham puts it, “Scammers can be found anywhere they’re able to reach you … If there’s an app [or other platform], you can bet there’s a scammer there somewhere.” He says it’s crucial to be hyper-vigilant with all of your online interactions and stay alert as to what may be going on there. He also mentions the need for older people who may be trying online dating for the first time to be informed of all the fraud potential inherent in such virtual world interactions.
While neither Bingham nor Kulik can recommend any one online dating site or app as being relatively flimflam-free, they have found that in their experience, the ones that don’t charge a fee tend to offer the most potential for shady activity. Two they mention as being among the most notorious are OKCupid and Plenty of (Cat)Fish.
What are some of the red flags to look out for?
Kulik says that one of the first signs you may be falling victim to fraud is that the scammer may want to start communicating off-platform right away. If you’ve barely exchanged messages on the dating site and they want you to switch to text or WhatsApp, watch out! They’ve got your phone number then, which is a move you may soon regret.
Bingham adds that scammers will also be very limited in what info they are willing to reveal to you lest they step outside their carefully constructed fake identities. He suggests testing to see if someone’s real by asking for a phone call or video chat (once you’ve gotten to the point where you’ve already revealed your number, that is) or requesting they send what he calls a “custom photo” — for example, one where they hold up a certain number of fingers or a piece of paper with a message you’ve specified.
Perhaps the biggest, reddest flag of all is that a scammer will always need something — usually money — from you. Kulik says some scammers will ask for cash right away, possibly by “say[ing] their phone is broken or damaged and [they] need money to fix it before they can continue conversing with you.” Another type of scammer tends to wait a bit longer before requesting large sums for personal reasons — maybe for medical expenses, or for even a plane ticket to come visit you.
What can you do if you've fallen victim to a scam?
Kulik says once you realize you’ve been scammed, you need to put aside any embarrassment you’re feeling. For one thing, you’re far from the first person to fall for such a scheme — most likely, you aren’t even the first person to fall for that particular con artist. More importantly, though, keeping silent lets scammers move on to their next marks. As he points out, “Don’t be afraid to tell your story. It might save a potential victim in the future.”
Bingham says that in addition to dealing with your emotions, you’ll also need to take care of the practical side of things by reporting the details to the proper authorities. If you’ve lost money through the scam, this is theft and the scammer broke the law. He says you should file a police report and also advises getting in touch with the police department’s commercial crimes division as they may have additional resources for tracking down scammers. He also recommends that you file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission as this agency also oversees such fraudulent activity.
After you’ve taken these steps, as well as any other ones you feel able to do (perhaps sharing your story via social media), you should feel proud of yourself rather than being ashamed. You may have been a crime victim, but now you’re fighting back to put those evil-doers out of business or, better yet, behind bars!
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