Will You Be the Next CatPhishing Victim?

Category: Privacy

In Johnny Lee's 1980 song “Lookin' For Love,” he describes his search for love as “playing a fools game, hoping to win.” Many years earlier, Ambrose Bierce wrote: “I have known men to fall in love by light so dim they would not choose a suit by it.” Thanks to the Internet, today the light is not only dim but deceptive. Lonely people of all persuasions are at increasing risk of being preyed upon by phony romantic partners who not only aren’t what they seem to be, but may not exist at all. Read on to learn about catphishing...

What is CatPhishing?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a catfish is (1): "any of an order (Siluriformes) of chiefly freshwater stout-bodied scaleless bony fishes having long tactile barbels, or (2): "a person who sets up a false personal profile on a social networking site for fraudulent or deceptive purposes. Today we'll be discussing the latter case, with the alternate spelling of "catphish" that's more common online.

San Diego Chargers linebacker Manti T’eo was the victim of such a cruel hoax during his senior year at Notre Dame, bask in 2012. The All-American football player fell in love with a “woman” sight unseen through social media. The sports press made much of Manti’s dedication to “Lennay Kekau,” purportedly a Stanford University student who tragically died of leukemia. But “Lennay” turned out to be a hoax, a fictitious person elaborately crafted by a male acquaintance of Manti’s. This cruel trick was just a joke that went too far, apparently. But ten years later, some questions linger about Te'o's possible involvement. Don Van Natta Jr., an ESPN sports writer explains why.

Another example far more serious than a cruel hoax involved Roxanne Reed, a 66-year-old woman from North Carolina. In November 2018, Reed was charged with conspiring to kill her elderly mother. It turned out she was being scammed by a man she met on Facebook, who initiated a romantic exchange, and later claimed he needed money for medical bills. After sending over $50,000 to the man, she ran out of money and saw her mother's life insurance policy as a way to continue helping the man she thought she loved.

What is CatPhishng?

The story of Jacqueline and George follows some of the tell-tale twists and turns of catphishing (a romantic interest developing online, a request for money, excuses for not meeting in person) but has a happy (or at least happier) ending. After a year of simmering doubts came to a boil, Jacqueline discovered that "George" was a scammer who borrowed the profile photo of an Instagram model. Thanks to her instincts, she escaped the relationship without losing any money.

The practice of using a fake virtual persona to dupe a victim out of money (or just inflict emotional damage) is called “catphishing.” The neologism seems to be a play on “phishing” (using deceptive email to obtain sensitive information) and a Southern sport called “noodling,” in which large catfish are patiently enticed into chomping down on a probing hand which hauls them into the boat. Jeff Foxworthy meets the Internet!

Catphish lurk on dating sites and apps, passively waiting for bites. It's a well-known problem on Match.com, Tinder, Eharmony, and other places where people are looking for love. They also cast their lures around social media, making contact on LinkedIn, offering friend requests on Facebook, tweeting admiringly, and so on. Their objective is usually to fake romantic interest, engage the victim emotionally, and then pretend to have some sort of “problem” that only a generous online friend can solve with money.

For more information on Phishing, see Have You Been Phished? and here's Why Phishing is Getting Worse

Patriotism is another emotion to which catphish appeal. A Colorado mother-daughter team conned over 350 people by posing as American soldiers in Afghanistan. Their phishing holes were dating sites because that is where all the lonely people come. They sucked up over $1 million worth of “the kindness of strangers” before they were caught.

How to Spot an Online CatPhisher

Catphish are easy to spot if your vision is unclouded by emotion. Some of their telltale traits are:

  • They never are able to meet in person; they are only available online or via phone call
  • They are charming, flattering, sympathetic, and chatty;
  • Claim to be U.S. citizens, but are always living in distant places for “international business” or military service
  • They quickly talk about love and their eagerness for a romantic relationship
  • They ask for your home address in order to send you gifts
  • They often have young children, another sympathy draw
  • They have sudden, bizarre financial difficulties
  • Also, once you help catphish financially, they will soon be back with bigger needs.

I've been in the position of watching some of these scams as a middle man, and for a while, I didn't understand what was going on. In addition to my duties at AskBobRankin, I also operate FlowersFast, an online florist service. Occasionally, I see orders from "customers" using stolen credit cards and obviously fake U.S. addresses. A quick check of their IP address typically shows they're actually in Nigeria or Russia. But the recipients are real, and the messages that the senders attach to the bouquets speak of undying love. The goal of these catphishers is to gain the trust of their marks by sending flowers. Sometimes these scammers unwittingly provide enough information, that I can find their profiles on sketchy dating sites.

Of course, the Internet is just a new medium for this old scam, and “catphishing” is just a new term for this type of fraud. Still, it persists because there are always people on whom it works. Don’t be one of those.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Will You Be the Next CatPhishing Victim?"

Posted by:

05 Apr 2022

"Ah, look at all the lonely people."

Posted by:

05 Apr 2022

These scammers even infiltrate popular game apps such as Words with Friends. They pose as players who then challenge potential victims to a match. If you’re open to accepting challenges from players you don’t know, you just have to be wary. It is quickly evident if they are catphishers, as they play horribly and are mainly interested in immediately engaging you via the chat function to discuss personal matters. Fortunately, you just have to forfeit and end the game with them, then block them, to get rid of them.

Posted by:

05 Apr 2022

Well I am 76 years old and NEVER answer a phone call that I do not know. If they want to speak with me, they can leave a message, which I either will or won't answer with a return call.

Posted by:

Brian B
05 Apr 2022

My attitude is the same as boyd's. Unless the callers number or name is stored in my callers list on my phone, I just let the call go through to my answering machine or message bank. Nine out of ten of these callers hang up when they hear my message about leaving their name and number. If it is important for someone to speak to me, they will leave a message. If they don't leave a message, then it wasn't important. It's a shame that we have all this wonderful technology available to us, but in order to stay safe, we have to forgo it so often.

Posted by:

05 Apr 2022

So Bob, what do you do with the scammers that use your florist service (3rd last paragraph)?
Do call them out - cancel the order?
Do you warn their indented victims - send the flowers but with a warning note?
Large can of worms - ethically, morally, legally.
Very curious as to your reponse.

Posted by:

06 Apr 2022

I will get many friend requests on FB from females. Often, their FB profiles show alluring photos of a beautiful woman, and when you look through their FB profile, it is quite slim, as if they co-opted the photos from elsewhere. This is the first tell tale sign and I usually decline to accept the friend request. Second, should you accept a friend request, they will very quickly contact you with messages seeking personal information. Very quickly they will turn to romantic phrases and you know the scam is coming. One scammer represented that she was a soldier stationed in Afghanistan as part of a UN force. Quickly she sent romantic messages. Her "team" had killed a terrorist and in the wake of the attack, the dead terrorist had a large amount of stolen money that she needed help in getting out of the Country. Never fall for this come on.

Posted by:

06 Apr 2022

I share the same view as Boyd and Brian. In addition, if someone knocks at my door, I only open the door to family members, friends, and businesses that I associate with. If I do not recognize the person, I am under NO obligation to open the door. With all the scammers, spammers, hucksters, fakers, and criminals out there, it better to be safe than sorry. Thank you, Bob for another important and informative article!

Posted by:

06 Apr 2022

I didn't realize there are "catphish" lurking around on the internet. Thank you for educating and sharing information about these lowlifes!

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