Not all online scams are trying to download malware onto your computer. Sometimes scams aren’t a virus burrowing into your hard drive, but a fake lover taking root in your heart. If you use online dating, or might try it someday, make sure to protect your heart and bank account from catfishing.

What is catfishing?

You may know the term catfishing from the 2010 eponymous movie or the following MTV series. A catfish is someone posing as someone else online, usually in a dating scam. She may purport to be a highly successful, attractive 35-year old lawyer — when in reality he’s a 16-year old boy messaging you during study hall.

While some catfishers may just be playing a prank, many are far more nefarious scammers. And they scam people out of a lot of money. The US Federal Trade Commission reported that in 2018, romantic scams cost Americans $143 million dollars.

The scam generally goes like this: you meet someone on a dating site or app, the person seems amazing, and they progress your relationship quickly. You want to meet them in person, and the catfish says they are excited to meet you, too. Only then something goes wrong: the catfish is “stuck” in another country and needs some emergency cash, or faces an unforeseen, expensive “medical condition”; or finds some other excuse to ask for money.

Since you care about the catfish, you send them some money to help them out of their predicament. Some catfishers manage to keep the relationship scam going, bilking their “partners” out of thousands of dollars over time.

Remember that Nigerian prince who needs a money transfer? He’s now dating your mom

You probably remember the common Nigerian prince scam that was popular in the 1990s to early 2000s. A “Nigerian prince” contacts you: he has a huge inheritance waiting for him in a bank. But due to political insecurity in the region or some other excuse, he needs your help getting access to the money. All you have to do is send him a chunk of money now, and then he’ll reward you with (a much bigger) portion later. Of course, none of this is real and you never get your money back.

Now that many people are familiar with that scam, fraudsters are going beyond a simple email posing as a Nigerian prince. They’re taking social engineering much further — creating entire fake identities, with fake photos and fake social media accounts, and seducing innocent people into fake relationships. They’re building your trust and making you feel loved. Then it all turns out to be a lie. This can leave both your bank account and your heart feeling empty.

And while younger generations tend to be more tech savvy, older internet users are vulnerable to these types of scams. The US Federal Trade Commission noted in its report that people over age 40 were far more likely to fall victim to catfishing scams compared to their younger counterparts. People over age 70 lost the most money in romantic scams, with the median amount being $10,000 — meaning that many people lost much more than that.

So if you, or your parents, or even your grandparents are looking for love online, it’s important to learn the signs of catfishing so you can protect yourself and spread the word to help keep your family safe too.

Watch out for these red flags

When you meet someone new through a dating site or social media, proceed with caution. Watch out for the common signs that the person you’re chatting with may not be who they say they are.

The person seems to good to be true

If your new love interest seems to be extremely attractive and rich, with a fancy job, it may all be fake. Many catfishers claim to have a job that has them constantly on the road, as it can be an easy cover for why they can’t meet you in person.

The relationship moves fast

If the person seems to be pushing the relationship forward unusually fast, it’s time to pump the breaks. Keep an eye out for things like sharing very personal details quite quickly (especially about problems that might garner your sympathy) or professing their feelings very early. Of course it’s flattering to feel loved, but if you two barely know each other, how can they be falling for you?

The person has a sparse presence on social media

Check out your potential new flame on social media and see how many friends and photos they have. If the account is brand new, it could be a sign that someone created the account just for a fake persona. It’s a huge red flag if there are only a few photos, all of which look professional (they might be stolen from a model or somewhere else on the net). Also, see if anyone has tagged them in photos: if they have friends who uploaded photos featuring them, that’s a better sign they’re actually a real person.

Their story has some holes

As you get to know someone online, be wary of inconsistencies in their story. Do details about their job, hobbies, or family seem to change? A liar might make mistakes or forget what they said before. Even pay attention to the way they write — for example, do they claim to be a native English speaker but you notice they make lots of mistakes? That’s a huge, waving red flag that they aren’t who they say they are.

They seem to have everything in common with you

If your new love interest seems to agree with everything you say, or claims to have everything in common with you, it can be a sign that they are lying just to try to establish common ground and build an artificial sense of trust.

Follow these tips to stay safe

It can be exciting to meet someone new online, but make sure to follow these tips to stay safe and avoid getting scammed.

Do a reverse image search

Do a reverse image search to check if your love interest’s photos appear elsewhere on the web (like in a catalogue or on someone else’s social media profiles). You can do this easily via Google image search. You simply upload a photo of your potential flame and it’ll show you where the image appears online so you’ll know if it’s stolen.

Video chat

A real person should have no qualms about showing you their real face. Beware excuses like poor Wi-Fi or Skype not working. A real person, who has genuine interest in you, will find a way to video chat. There are so many ways to connect over video these days (Skype, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Signal, etc.) and most places in the world have Wi-Fi. If you’re new beau is consistently dodging you, there’s probably a reason.

Meet in person

Of course, the best way to truly verify someone’s identity is to meet them in person. It’s best to do this after you have seen them through a video chat. Meet in a public place and tell someone that you trust where you’re going and when you expect to return — yes, even adults should do this!

Don’t send, ahem, sensitive photos

Don’t send nudes!!! You could open yourself up to blackmail from a scammer. If the ransomware trend is any indication, bad actors these days are more than happy to use your files against you for monetary gain.

Trust your gut

If something seems off, it probably is. A real person should be able to put you at ease. If you have some questions that your potential new bae can’t answer, it’s better to be safe than sorry. You’ll be better off looking for someone who lives in your area and is happy to meet in person.

Never give money to internet strangers

Know the typical excuses catfishers make for asking for money. An unforeseen medical procedure, an unexpected problem while traveling, or family problems are common ruses. The request may be for you to wire money, send money via an app, send gift cards, or something else. Never send money to someone you have not met in person.

Other imposter scams

In general, you always want to try your best to verify that you aren’t being deceived on the internet. Dating scams aren’t the only type of imposter fraud to watch out for. You should also be on the lookout for swindlers posing as government agencies, businesses, or tech support workers. These ploys often come in the form of phishing attempts.

It’s important to stay vigilant. To help keep your whole family safe from scammers of all types, it’s a good idea to have a conversation with your kids, your parents, and even your grandparents to make sure they won’t fall victim to shady requests for money online.

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