fraud watch

Criminals use text messages, telephone calls and emails as their catphishing gear and, for the most part, anyone can be reeled in. The author says that, while this might seem frivolous and sound playful, catphishing is quite lucrative for the criminal. In fact, these romance scams over the past year resulted in record victim losses.

Some of the terminology related to fraud and scams would make you believe that fraud is a recreational activity: phishing, spearphishing or whaling.

Here is a term you might not be familiar with: catphishing — the one word now used to describe romance scams.

Criminals use text messages, telephone calls and emails as their phishing gear and, for the most part, anyone can be reeled in. While this might seem frivolous and sound playful, catphishing is quite lucrative for the criminal. In fact, these romance scams over the past year resulted in record victim losses — $304 million in 2020, compared with $75 million in the previous year. That is an average of $2,500 per victim (nearly $9,500 for victims over the age of 70).

What is particularly stunning is that these numbers are based on data collected by the Federal Trade Commission and do not include information gathered by the FBI, other federal agencies or by local and state authorities.

While phone scams occur frequently, the criminal’s weapon of choice is the computer. Using stock photographs and fabricated profiles, the scammer targets a particular demographic — older male, older female, widow/widower, divorced middle-aged, younger partner-seeker.

The effort initially focuses on establishing a presence that attracts intended targets by joining chatrooms, groups such as SilverSingles, social media platforms and, at the local level, religious and civic groups.

There is no rush, as the scammer will work numerous likely victims and sites at the same time. Relationships take time to build, often several months, so, a skillful scammer uses time to build personal connections.

Time can also work for the criminal, because the intended victim might want the “romance” to move at a faster pace, thus making mistakes by letting emotion take control over reason and caution.

There are some clear red lights and warning signs that a scam is in play:

• Does the new person of interest seem too perfect?

• Is there an effort to move communications away from public sites (dating sites, chatrooms, social media) to private email exchanges? Moving away from “public” sites means more anonymity and less oversight. (Some sites require member validation, which adds complexity for the con artist).

• Does the new romantic interest ask for money? Often, the scammer will ask to borrow a small amount — $500 or less — then repay the loan quickly as a means of solidifying trust; a ploy that might repeat itself a few times. If trust is obtained, the criminal will increase the amount requested to thousands of dollars, usually creating a crisis requiring money, such as emergency medical bills or automobile repair or replacement.

It might even be couched in a request for help in traveling to meet with the “love of his or her life!” Of course, there is no crisis, no illness, or plan to travel; only a plan to take money and, sadly, the victims in these scams are so entrapped that they will send money repeatedly.

How do you avoid being catphished?

Take a few simple steps before making any commitments. Verify the physical address of the person. If it is a scam, there will be hesitancy to provide an address. In fact, the criminal might say that he or she is currently out of the country as an active service member or is working in a remote location, such as on an oil rig.

Be insistent in asking for a verifiable address and check it out. Use the photograph that is sent to do a reverse-image search on the internet to see if the person is using other names. If the answer is yes, it is a scam.

Go slowly, and listen or look for inconsistencies in what you are told, and share the details of the relationship with others who you trust. Then, listen to their advice.

Regardless of where you are in the relationship, if you believe it to be a scam, report it to the FBI using its internet crime reporting process — IC3.gov.

Questions, concerns? Contact me at egreenblott@aarp.org.

Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator and coordinator of the AARP Vermont Fraud Watch Network. He hosts a CATV program, “Mr. Scammer,” distributed by GNAT-TV in Sunderland, Vt.: gnat-tv.org.