Did you hear about the guy from Bucksnort, Tennessee, who sent a catfisher his life savings after a steamy back-and-forth on a popular dating app? The amount lost: $4,395.45, which was the supposed cost of airfare and visa expedition for the victim’s true love to get from Kiev, Ukraine.
If you think you did hear about it, you’re mistaken, because I made it up. The reason I did that: Too many catfishing scams go unreported. As a result, awareness does not match the threat.
Not that long ago, online dating was viewed as a sad place where desperate people went to connect with other sad, desperate people. That is no longer the case. Any stigma attached to online dating is a thing of the past, with the Pew Research Center reporting that more than 15% of U.S. adults have used online dating sites or dating apps. A majority of Americans now say it is a good way to meet people. That said, the shame of appearing desperate remains, and that’s why catfishers often get away with their crimes.
It is not uncommon for military personnel to be targeted. A recent case involved members of Hamas creating fake Facebook profiles and luring Israeli soldiers with them. The goal there was much more serious than mere robbery: They were sending video chat links that contained a Trojan Horse virus that extracted contacts, locations, apps, pictures, and any files, and gave the hackers access to the camera and microphone on the victim’s computer.
How to Avoid Catfishing Scams
If you think you’re not susceptible, think again. You are. That’s the rule of the jungle. Those who never trust and always verify are the safest — though admittedly it might put a cramp in your online dating life.
Here are five tips for avoiding catfishers this Valentine’s Day from my book, Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers and Identity Thieves.
- Beware of romantic interest from someone who says they can’t meet. He’s really American, but lives abroad right now (but is using an online dating site and contacting people in your city). Her phone got shut off. His webcam won’t work. Scammers always have a hundred arrows in their cupid’s quiver of reasons why you can’t meet them in person, talk on the phone, or even see them on a webcam, and they’re almost all disguising the fact that they’re using another person’s picture and a made-up identity to woo you. Before you let yourself get sucked into a whirlwind romance with a would-be Romeo or Juliet, make sure the person you think you’re falling for is more than just a few ghostwritten love letters and a model’s picture.
- Be suspicious of someone who always has emergencies. Once a catfisher thinks she or he has hooked a live one, they’ll test their mark to see how far they can push the trust they’ve worked hard to build. (It doesn’t hurt that this can play into their efforts to avoid actually having to meet, talk, or be seen.) But while having emergencies is a fact of life, involving people who don’t really know you in them really isn’t — and asking for money to resolve them is really bad form.
- Never turn over personal information or pictures you wouldn’t want widely available. Maybe your new squeeze-muffin will suddenly ask for a credit card number to buy a plane ticket, inquire about where your bank is located, or request something like your Social Security or passport number. Maybe they’ll ask for pictures of you in compromising situations, or to engage in some racy video chats. While giving out your personal information is enough of an identity gamble, don’t ignore the increased risk of having your personal pictures or screengrabs used against you as blackmail by a catfisher out for more than just titillation.
- Don’t give someone money or help him or her access money. Alarm bells should start going off the moment any potential romantic partner asks you for even a smidge of financial assistance. His or her first request might be small — perhaps something to help take care of an emergency situation —but most catfishers quickly accelerate their requests for money. If you refuse to help, they might ask you to deposit a check or accept a wire transfer from a friend and pass the money along, but the money you’re supposed to get never really arrives or the check bounces, leaving you holding the bag.
- Never click strange links or download files you receive. Even the most heartfelt-seeming e-card can mask something more dangerous than an online-only romance: Weird links to unfamiliar sites or files you’re asked to download can contain malware or viruses that do more than just spam your computer with ads. You could end up with a keystroke logger on your system, which would allow the sender to see passwords to everything (including your checking account), or a virus that turns your computer into a botnet to launch attacks against other sites. If you don’t really know the person, don’t trust the file (and, sometimes, even if you do know the person, don’t trust the file).
If you do wind up giving your personal information to a scammer, be sure to monitor your credit for signs of identity theft. You can do so by viewing your free credit report snapshot, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.
Remember, Valentine’s Day is a time to celebrate love. (You can go here to find more scams to watch out for as Feb. 14 approaches.) It’s a day to share your heart and your good fortune with those you love, not your personally identifiable information and your money with a 400-pound hacker sitting on a mattress in his mother’s basement.