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What You Need to Know about Catfish Scams

The word SCAM written on a laptop screen.
Catfish scams can occur on various online platforms, including social media, dating websites, and online gaming communities.

Is the person you’re chatting with truly who they say they are?

Picture this: you’re online. You’re making friends on social media or you’re trying to find someone to date. Then someone reaches out to you, so you click on their profile. It’s a little fishy. There’s a bio that barely has anything, except for a bunch of links that lead to sketchy websites that are probably hosted by some third-world country you’ve never heard of.

What just happened is that you’ve stumbled onto one of many catfish scams on the internet. For the most part, they’re fairly obvious and most people can spot and avoid them. There are, however, scams that are somewhat difficult to avoid and those would be romance scams.

Sometimes, a romance scam isn’t any less obvious than any other. But a person falls for them anyway despite the obvious catfish flags. Why is this? Because some people are optimistic enough that maybe the hot 20-year-old who reached out to them out of the blue is genuinely interested in them.

Now, can you go to jail for scamming online? Theoretically, yes you can. But catfishing by itself isn’t illegal and the thing about online scams is that they’re largely untraceable. Either the scammers use software to mask their location or they cease all contact once they feel like they’ve gotten all they can or if they suspect their target is starting to get wise to them.

Also, is catfishing illegal? Well, no. Catfishing is not illegal. In the United States, it’s not illegal for someone to use another person’s name and identity online. It’s often a precursor for illegal activities. But it’s not illegal in and of itself.

So a person could go to jail for scamming people on the internet, but that’s only if they’re caught and they’re incredibly hard to catch.

Why Catfish Scams Happen

But why do people even catfish other people in the first place? Well, the most obvious answer is profit. People catfish others to either swindle them out of money or information that they can use to get money.

Other times, people do it for the fun of it. Tricking someone online amuses them. But some people do it out of malice, like they want to bully someone but they don’t want to suffer any consequences so they do it anonymously by obfuscating their identities.

How to Identify a Catfish

But what if a scam isn’t obvious? What other signs can someone look out for in order to avoid catfish scams?

1. Where They Can Find You

Where are you most likely to encounter scammers? Social media and dating sites/apps are the two most common places. You may get an email/text message/phone call/letter, but the internet is the most likely place for people to encounter scammers.

So if someone on social media reaches out to you and you have no mutual connections, no friends in common, or overlapping school or work histories, then they’re probably looking to scam you.

2. Red Flags in Their Profile

On dating apps or sites, however, a catfish can be somewhat harder to spot. They’ll often use convincing photos and common romance scam pics can sometimes be sourced from a person’s social media so that the profile doesn’t look too fake or raise any red flags.

Some romance scammer photos may even be taken from people the scammer knows in real life. They’ll appear to be legitimate profiles, which makes it easier for them to lure people.

That said, many other scam profiles will use professional photos taken from a catalog. Or they’ll use heavily edited or even computer-generated images. So the pictures on the profile are some of the first things to look out for when trying to determine if someone is catfishing or not.

Speaking of someone’s profile, it’s not just the pictures that can be a dead giveaway that someone’s a scammer. Multiple links that lead to sketchy websites are a sure sign that they’re scammers.

3. Love at First Sight

Another sign that someone is a scammer is how quickly they fall for you. Soulmates might exist and two people might meet and instantly know that they’re meant to be with each other, but that’s rarer than a lightning strike. So, if someone on a dating app is declaring their everlasting love for you and you’ve only just met, they’re probably trying to scam you.

Romance scammers often shower their intended targets with as much affection as they can in order to get them to fall. They’ll send compliments and messages all throughout, trying to get their targets to lower their guards so as to make them targets.

4. Keeping the Story Straight

There are also a few questions to ask a romance scammer in order to probe and make sure they’re who they say they are. Their family background, their education, their work history – if there are any inconsistencies, like if they say they’re an only child but then reference a niece or nephew, then that’s a sign that they’re a scammer and can’t keep their story straight.

5. The Money Shot

Now, what’s the most obvious sign that someone’s a scammer? If they ask for money. Someone on an online dating app, or a veritable stranger on social media, sending you a message asking for money is a glaring sign that they’re scamming.

They’ll also often have a sob story. Their dad needs surgery. Their family is about to lose their home. Their best friend’s dog needs to be neutered. It doesn’t matter what the story is and how convincing they tell it, money should not exchange hands. The story is most likely fake and if they say it’s a loan, the lender is never getting their money back.

If a catfish doesn’t get any money, then the most likely thing that they’ll do is that they’ll move on to a different target.

6. Telemarketers and Spam

But money isn’t always the only thing that a catfish wants. Sometimes, they’ll also want personal information. Not just bank account numbers and passwords, either. They’ll also want information that seems mundane and harmless at first, like phone numbers and email addresses.

Why do they want this information? So they can sell it. After that information is sold, the phone numbers and email addresses are then flooded with spam or calls from telemarketers.

So it’s often best to keep that kind of personal information close to the chest. If there’s communication that needs to take place, then it’s best to do it on the built-in messaging feature on the app or site. That is, until identities have been verified.

How to Stay Away from Catfish Scams

What about avoiding them entirely? What’s the best way, if any, to avoid being catfished on a social media site or an online dating site/app?

Stay Alert

Well, the best way is to look for the signs as listed above. Knowing what to look out for is a great way of avoiding something. It’s like avoiding an ambush predator like a lion waiting in the tall grass, if you don’t see it, then it sneaks up on you and gets you.

Don’t Wander off the Beaten Path

Another way to avoid being catfished when online dating is to use reputable dating sites. True, it’s not always reliable as some catfish do make it onto these sites, they’re still a marginally better option than some dating site that no one’s ever heard of.

If possible, try to stick to a dating app or site with a high barrier of entry. Most dating apps, while they do have robust protections against scammers, only need a smartphone and an internet connection to create a profile. A matchmaking site, on the other hand, may sometimes require in-person verification in order to create a profile.

Dealing With a Catfish

Now, what if they can’t be avoided and they happen to sneak up on you? What if you match with someone online and start talking and only later realize that they’re not who they say they are? What then are you supposed to do?

Be Absolutely Sure Before Anything Else

First and foremost, make sure that you’re right. Try and do a background check. Search their name on social media platforms. You don’t want to end what could be a great relationship just because you made a mistake. So do what you can to verify someone’s identity if you think that they’re not who they say they are.

Ghost and Report

The next step that needs to be taken once you’ve verified that you’ve been catfished is to simply cease all communication. Maybe you can lead them on for a while if you think that’d be fun or as a form of revenge, but the best course of action would be to simply ghost them. Stop all communication, block them, and try to forget about their existence entirely.

After that, it’s best to report their profile to the site’s administrators so they can remove the profile. Doing so saves the next person that they were going to target from being catfished. It also helps train administrators and whatever algorithms that the site/app uses to better identify spam profiles.

Catfish scams aren’t going to go away. So long as people are allowed to be anonymous online, people are going to keep using false identities in order to line their own pockets. The best thing that a person can do when online is to stay alert, watch out for the signs, and act appropriately when they run into a catfish.

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