His name was Colonel Lance Shimmeroff. He was a retired U.S. Army officer and happened to be an ace Words With Friends player, according to my 75-year-old mother, who no one in the family could beat at the online game. They played the game often, and he impressed with his word combinations and witty banter. Within a few months, Grandma received a Facebook friend request from Col. Shimmeroff. She accepted. The personal questions and lunch invitations soon followed.
As she recounted the story and how she politely declined his advances, I took a closer look at “the Colonel’s” account. Sure enough, Grandma was being catfished.
I consider my mother one of the most brilliant people on the planet. It never crossed my mind that she wouldn’t know about catfish accounts online designed to gain the friendship — and eventually scam — older women.
She blushed. We laughed. And then she proceeded to block “The Colonel” and several other accounts posing as military men that had started following her other social media profiles. Mom’s a whiz on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram — but now knows to lock her accounts and only “friend” people she knows in person.
What’s a Catfish?
A fishing story is a story that’s been inflated, exaggerated, and is about as untrue and far-fetched as it can be. Thus, the term catfishing.
A catfish is someone who uses the internet to create a false identity. Catfishing is common on online dating sites and social media sites in general. People catfish others for several reasons. A catfish’s goal can be to build a fantasy relationship and manipulate another person’s emotions. Sometimes, however, the catfish’s intention is to gain trust to solicit funds, commit identity theft, extortion, or even a home robbery. Catfish target the young and the elderly and both males and females.
Smart people get catfished. Careless people get catfished.
No one is immune to a catfish’s schemes because they’ve become very sophisticated in the very personal ways they engage their victims — especially if the motive is financial.
Romance scams, also called confidence scams, result in the highest amount of financial losses when compared to other Internet crimes. According to FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, 14,546 people were victims of romance or confidence scams in 2016, up from 5,791 people in 2014. The financial losses are on the rise with victims losing nearly $220 million in 2016, more than double the nearly the numbers in 2014.
Casting a Very Wide Net
Catfishing is a numbers game. If a catfish creates a fake profile hoping to entice 50 people, just one bite is all a catfish needs to orchestrate his or her scam. Their methods can be simple or graduate into very sophisticated schemes that leave victims emotionally traumatized.
A lot of people online are genuine, awesome people but sadly, many aren’t. For catfish and cyber criminals, crime and deception are the full-time jobs they clock into every single day.
How can you tell if a catfish is trying to bait you? Pay attention to the signs below, listen to your instincts, and make every effort to keep your digital circle tight and trusted.
8 ways to spot a catfish
- Limited pictures. Everyone online has access to a camera these days but catfishes will post only one or two on their social profiles. If they do offer more photos, they’ve usually stolen them from another profile so they can they can pretend to be that person. One way to check the to see if photos belong to the person claiming them is to do a reverse image Google search. Simply right-click a photo, copy the URL, and paste in the box at images.google.com. Image searches could reveal if your new friend’s photo appears anywhere else online.
- Strange social profiles. Another way to spot a catfish is by examining their social media accounts. Their friend counts are low, posted are usually gifs or memes, and friend comments are low or non-existent. Catfish don’t usually post a lot of original content, express personal opinions, or share any kind of photo that hints to their personal life.
- They move fast. Beware of new online friends who rush things. They make the first move, reveal secrets too soon, express love too soon, and tend to be passive-aggressive with comments as a way to gage your sympathy level. They identify and prey on vulnerabilities and will exploit you if they detect you are lonely, naive, or an overly generous person.
- Inconsistent information. Catfish scams that originate outside of the U.S. often include information that does not add up. For example, if someone claims to live in Cleveland but knows nothing about the iconic Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they are probably lying. Ask a lot of questions. Catfish tend to ask the questions but shy away from answering with specifics.
- Dreamy lifestyle and looks. A catfish’s life (and looks) is usually too good to be true. Their lifestyle is inspiring. They volunteer, help people in need, and are unafraid of adventure. At the same time, a catfish may be sharing bits and pieces about a surprising setback in employment, illness, or a heartbreaking family situation that feels out of his or her control.
- Offbeat military (or other) career. The military catfish seems to be a very common scam and unfortunately, women fall for it every day. Catfish posing as soldiers often will ask victims for money to come home on leave or claim they can’t access their bank account while on a mission. They also duck out of a webcam, Skype, or Facetime call by claiming they are Special Forces or on a secret mission. Beware of any career (not just military) or circumstance that prohibits someone from meeting face to face. The catfish is full of excuses. Entire Facebook groups and websites have been established to alert people to the many bogus military photos circulating online.
- Requests for money. Catfish move fast emotionally, play on your sympathies, engage in hours of flirtatious, flattering texts, and may even ask for money. Often, they’ve architected their conversations methodically to access enough personal information to commit identity fraud or even a home robbery. Don’t fall for it.
- Spelling and grammar mistakes. It’s okay to flub up your grammar once in a while but if you meet someone online that constantly stumbles over spelling and grammar, it could be a catfish from another country. Note: Behind the uniform, the attractive face, or the drama-filled story, a scam can be going on. Sadly, as publicized as the decade-old Nigeria-based scams are, people still fall for these digital hoaxes.
The best weapon against being catfished is education. The more you know about this online crime, the faster a catfish scheme can be exposed. Trust yourself and follow your gut. Stop communicating before a friendship goes too far and you’ve opened yourself up emotionally or financially.
Report any accounts that appear to be fake to the social media or dating platform immediately. If a situation has progressed to a criminal level report your experience (or a loved one’s) to the Internet Crime Complaint Center.
Toni Birdsong is a Family Safety Evangelist to McAfee.