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Catfishing, A Multi-Million Dollar Fraud Scheme

Catfishing has evolved from a cruel prank into a multi-million dollar fraud scheme. Dictionaries recently added the following definition: cat·fish, /ˈkatˌfiSH/, to lure (someone) into a relationship by means of a fictional online persona. For example: “He was being catfished by a cruel prankster.”  IC3.gov, the FBI’s website for online crime, received 68,013 complaints in 2019 from victims over the age of 60 with adjusted losses in excess of $835 million. Many of these victims were the targets of catfishing schemes.

There are ways to tell if someone may be catfishing you. First, remember these are professional con men (and women) who will spend months cultivating a relationship. They also have researched their victims extensively before making contact. They know your likes and dislikes.

Fraudsters use photos of others to lure victims. One way to check this is by downloading their photo and doing an image search on google. Unfortunately, if someone looks too good to be true they probably are. It is important to remember that these scams are not limited to romance. Scammers will often impersonate sympathetic persons like deployed soldiers, the disabled, etc. in order to develop a relationship with you.

Many scammers will identify a target and pursue them relentlessly by sending flowers, love poetry, small gifts, etc. Scammers find targets on legitimate websites then try to convince the target to move their conversations to a messaging service like WhatsApp. Scammers do this because legitimate sites are good at detecting fraud but it typically takes a few weeks for the fraudster’s true nature to be discovered. Someone pressuring you to move quickly off the platform you meet is a huge red flag.

Scammers will usually tell you that their job sends them around the world. They talk regularly about arranging “physical” contact but it is always cancelled, usually at the last minute. Their social media usage is sparse. The cancelled meetings and lack of social media posts are usually explained by saying how busy they are. The fraudsters make up for their failure to meet you in person by sending menial gifts and saying they bought it for you while on their business trip. It is not uncommon for fraudsters to spend months cultivating a relationship with their target.

Once the victim is on the hook, the scammer will send a frantic communication about how they are in financial trouble overseas and promise to pay money back when they get back to the US. Some scammers will even pay back the money in order to set you up for the true scam. One example is a fraudster asking for $10,000 to pay a storage company to release needed equipment. The fraudster then returns the money within a few days. A couple weeks later, the fraudster will ask for more money or present a business investment opportunity that is really a scam.

Fraudsters also use catfishing to find people to help them with the fraud. They may ask you to set up a business name and business bank account for them. By doing this you may have committed money laundering by helping the fraudster possess or receive the criminal proceeds of their scams. At a minimum, opening a bank account for someone and receiving money on their behalf is a felony.

Many fraudsters are outside the United States. These criminals take advantage of people solely because it’s an easy way for them to steal money without having to rob a bank. These schemes evolve as technology changes so it is important to do what you can to protect yourself from these con men.

Posted by Keith Houston on 9 Mar 2020

About the author

Harris County Assistant District Attorney, Cybercrime