Romance scams, also known as “catfish scams,” are the central theme in the novel “Chatting as Adalee.” They are also part of the plot in the second novel featuring Heidi from “Chatting,” as she becomes a support person and advocate for other victims. Reaching out is a first step, but there are also a few things to keep in mind as you help a friend or family member heal over time.
The person will go back and forth over whether or not the relationship was real.
This can be frustrating. You think they understand that what they went through was a scam, and not a real relationship. They seem to have accepted that the one they thought they loved was not real, or at least was not completely real. Then they reference the time they were “dating” that person.
Remind them as gently as possible that what they’re talking about was a scam. Never play along with the idea that the relationship was in any way real, but resist the urge to correct them harshly, laugh it off, or tease them about it. Your friend may have spent months or even years believing the relationship to be genuine.
Your friend may shed some beneficial habits or practices.
Being scammed is never a good thing. But sometimes people develop good habits or practices in an attempt to impress the person they thought they were with, or prepare for a new life they thought they would soon have. They may have begun studying a language the scammer claimed to speak, altering their appearance in a way that makes them feel more confident, saving up money, or doing more reading or studying or looking for a better job.
It can be a bit jarring when the person abandons these things as they accept they have been scammed. Keep their best interests in mind, but don’t fight them on it. Don’t encourage them to blow their entire savings account, but don’t lecture them when they realize they don’t need to save up to buy a house after all, or stop looking for a better job when the only reason they were doing so was to get money for the scammer. They need to let go of things they took on for the scam.
Expect extremes in attitudes about romance, crushes, and dating.
Once someone realizes and accepts they have been the victim of a romance scam, they often show extreme feelings about romance for a while. Some people want nothing to do with it. They do not want to meet your other single friends of the appropriate gender and orientation to date them, go out in a group, or be flirted with by anyone. In some cases, they do not even care to hear about others’ relationships or even celebrity crushes. Others become fixated on it, wanting to get out there and find a real relationship to replace the fake one right away. Both of these are normal and expected reactions.
Anger or concern for people in stolen photographs or invented stories is normal in the beginning, but should lessen over time.
Even the most levelheaded person will be somewhat disoriented and confused when they first realize they’ve been scammed. Many people struggle to accept that they never were talking to the person in photos stolen by the scammer, or that children, exes, siblings, pets, or parents in the stories they told either didn’t exist, or were very different people in reality. Your friend might express a wish to find and tell off the person in the photo, or wistfully wonder how a child or pet the scammer talked about is doing now. Gently remind them that the person in the photo had nothing to do with the scam, and had no idea their photo was even being used. Further remind them that characters in scammer stories are just that, characters, even if the scammer based them on real people in their own lives or stolen stories. As time goes on, they will learn to accept these truths.
Healing happens differently for everyone.
The healing process is going to vary depending on a wide number of factors. Most of the time, people who spent a shorter time believing they were in a relationship with someone who turned out to be a scammer are going to heal faster. Those with a lot of real friends and supportive family members may need less time. Confident people, secure in who they are, tend to move past the experience of being scammed relatively quickly. On the other hand, those who were enmeshed with the scammer for several months or even years, people with few meaningful relationships, and those who lack confidence or who have a tendency to try to be what other people want or expect rather than themselves tend to take longer. Mental health care needs vary as well, ranging from a few weeks of self-directed learning about the issue of romance scams and a little time to themselves, to regular therapy with a professional.
The wish to confront the scammer/catfish is normal. Actually attempting to do so is potentially dangerous.
MTV’s popular series “Catfish” serves others well in publicizing romance scams, educating the audience about some of the signs of romance scams, and making the public understand that romance scammers, or catfish, to use the term coined by the show’s founder, Nev Schulman, can be from the United States, or even someone the victim already knows offline. Before the show, many people believed romance scammers only existed in countries like Nigeria, Ghana, and Russia, where organized scam rings are based.
However, the show does an even bigger disservice by sending the message that American romance scammers are just ordinary people lacking in social skills, everyday oddballs who will make great friends if someone just sits them down, explains what they’re doing is wrong, and gives them a chance to be a real friend.
Romance scams are carried out for a variety of reasons. American scammers may be after the victim’s money, or trying to trick them into doing something illegal, as the Nigerian scammers are. Or they might be running their scams in order to lure victims for violent crime, including rape and murder. The hosts and producers of “Catfish” display alarming naivete when they check in with the scammer at the end of the show or encourage the victim to build a friendship with the scammer. The person has already been proven to be a scammer, and they are well aware that they’re surrounded by a film crew and about to be broadcast on cable television and streaming services. Nobody…including the people who make the show…have any idea what that person would have done if they’d been confronted by the victim, or the victim and a small group of their friends, alone. And they have no idea if the scammer is telling the truth about changing their ways.
Reach out to the appropriate professional if your friend harms, or expresses a wish to harm, themselves or others.
Self-harm, plans or wishes to harm themselves, and abuse of pets, children, or adult friends or relatives living in the home are not a normal and expected part of the healing process from a scam or anything else. Never brush even the slightest incident off as your friend just venting, or something that will never happen again. Contact the appropriate authorities, just as you would if the situation involved someone who is not healing from a romance scam.