One of the interesting aspects of the internet age is not only the proliferating of online scams, but the fact that those scams create the basis for Reality TV. The prime example is catfishing: where a person creates fake social media accounts and uses this persona to build romantic relationships online. Not only have public figures fallen victim, capturing the attention of the media, but MTV even has a highly popular reality show on the subject.
Perhaps because of the attention catfishing has gotten, its often not taken very seriously. And, besides the embarrassment of getting tricked, catfishing may appear to be relatively harmless. Well, as it turns out, this is far from the case. According to statistics from the Federal Trade Commision, romance scams have evolved into the most costly form of consumer fraud today.
Of the 21,000 reports submitted to the FTC in 2018, victims of these scams lost a total of $143 million — a 23% increase from 2015. What’s more, the median individual loss from a romance scam is seven times higher than all other types of fraud.
With statistics like that, catfishing might not be as entertaining as it used to seem.
How They Work
While we assume catfishing usually starts on dating apps, scammers utilize many different social networking websites. In fact, many report that the scams started with a Facebook message. But whatever the means, the scammer will use a photo often taken another person’s profile and build relationships online with unsuspecting victims. Romance scams can play out over months of even years in order to build up trust.
Of course, the scam can only work as long as they never actually meet in public. Scammers will therefore often claim to be living abroad or serving in the military. This even helps to eventually convince the victim to send them money, claiming they need the money travel back to the states to meet. In other cases, the scammer will play on the victim’s sense of decency by claiming they are in urgent need of help to pay medical bills.
However, a new trend seems to be emerging. In August, the FBI released a statement warning that romance scams are now starting to use victims as unknowing ‘money mules.’ According to the statement, after gaining the victims trust scammers will convince them to open a new bank account in order to send and receive funds. The scammers will then use the account to transfer illegal funds and “facilitate criminal activities for a short period of time.”
Whatever the case, catfish scams certainly deserve to be taken more seriously than they often are. While it may be hard to believe people actually fall for them, the data shows they’re becoming more and more successful. One of the likely reasons for this is, like with phishing and Nigerian prince scams, they don’t exploit technical but rather human vulnerabilities. By learning what buttons to push, scammers are getting better and better at getting their victim to act against common sense. It’s therefore important that everyone understands these emerging trends to help protect against the financial threat these scams pose.
Also published on Medium.