Romance scams are the central issue in my second novel Chatting as Adalee, but even those artists who do not write about romance scams are especially vulnerable to scammers. We tend to be busy, and turn to online environments to socialize. We use our social media to promote our work.
Many have questions about romance scams, but even after those questions are answered, we still have a tendency to brush the issue off, or believe the following myths:
“This is no longer a problem. Everybody already knows about internet romance scammers/catfish. Nobody is getting scammed anymore.”
There are at least two currently running television shows devoted to internet romance scams. One is MTV’s Catfish. The other is the Investigation Discovery Channel’s Web of Lies. The topic continues to be featured on daytime talk shows such as Dr. Phil.
Many women I meet in online communities designed to introduce other women to each other for friendship report being approached by scammers. You can see a selection of the more obvious scammer accounts yourself by simply joining a few groups and checking your messages from people who are not on your friends list. Those might be pretty obvious, but people who run scams see it as a business or a side gig. They market, practice, and train others. Those same people who made you roll your eyes at their obviously fake profile and greeting are likely working their way up to one that works on at least some people.
"I was able to verify that my online boyfriend or girlfriend has nothing to do with Nigeria or any other country with a lot of organized scam rings. I went on the web site of the place they told me they worked, found a contact number, and called and talked to them there unexpectedly. That means this person is not a scammer."
The Nigerian scam is the most common type of romance scam. It is also remarkably easy to copycat. Checking email headers and cutting off all contact if the messages are found to be coming from Nigeria, Ghana, or another country with a lot of organized scam rings is an important first step, as most scams are run by these rings. But remember that "most" does not mean the same thing as "all."
Scammers can and do use some details from their real life. They know how easy it is to research someone online, and they know that some targets will research them. In order for the situation to be real, the person has to be who they say they are and their intentions must be what they state. If the person really is a tall, slender, conservative blonde named “Susie,” but her real reason for being online to get men to send her money and not to meet her future husband, she is still a scammer.
"My online partner hasn't said anything about money, shipping, gifts, or banking. They didn't even hint around about it, so this is definitely not a scam."
While the vast majority of online romance scams are designed for financial gain and/or to trick someone else into taking the fall for illegal activity, there are scammers who run scams simply to hurt people. The MTV television show Catfish features many scammers who designed and implemented an online romance scam in order to get a general sense of revenge on the world, or to punish an individual they knew for doing something the scammer didn't like. A scam occurs any time a person or group of people goes online as a fake person, including a fake version of themselves, and then uses that created persona to manipulate anyone else into a false relationship with them.
"People are making a big deal out of nothing. Everybody meets jerks online. If I meet a scammer I'll just quit talking to them."
Being scammed goes far beyond "meeting a jerk." We aren't talking about people who do things like set up pages on Facebook just to form a little clique and get mean with people they don't find interesting, or pretend they want to make a friend and then start talking about explicit things out of the blue, or who start out nice and then start picking random fights. We are talking about people who use carefully planned brainwashing methods to manipulate others for their own personal gain. That goes a bit beyond your ordinary online "jerk" or "troll." It is possible to just quit talking to someone who you realize is a scammer right away, or very early in what you believe to be the relationship, but once you have been lead to believe that this is a person who loves you and who you love in return, it is not going to be so easy to just let it go. Scammers do a great deal of emotional and psychological damage.
"I am seeing a lot of red flags for an online romance scam, but the situation could be real this time."
If you are seeing a lot of signs of a scam, then it's a scam. Pretend you hired me to housesit this Saturday afternoon through Sunday afternoon. I promised you that I would keep the house empty and calm, and spend the time reading and watching TV, only talking to friends via my cell phone and personal laptop. When I arrive to set myself up in your guest room, you notice that in addition to a change of clothes and my hygiene items, I have also brought a cocktail dress, heels, and makeup. When you look in the grocery bags I brought "so I wouldn't eat up all your food" you find an assortment of drinks, several bags of chips, and a flyer with a special price on large orders from the local pizza place. Would you assume that I am the one housesitter who eats several times more than the average person during a weekend and likes to get dressed up in sequins to sit and watch movies alone? Or would you see all the signs of someone about to have a party in your house, and tell me you won't be needing me after all before I trash your place? Apply this same logic to your online contact's behavior. Scammers count on their targets refusing to accept the red flags that indicate a scam.
"I'm not worried. If anyone scams me, I will go after them. They do it on Catfish all the time"
Catfish has its good points, It brings romance scams to the public's attention. Most of what the show teaches is a good way to handle online relationships; look for red flags, ask a lot of questions, research the person and any places they claim a connection to, refuse to make any promises before you know the person well. However, there are two features of the show Catfish that make it difficult to watch without getting angry at the hosts.
The first is that they treat the scammer as though they are just socially awkward or struggling with mental health issues and need some help to function in the world. When you see a scammer respond positively to this type of treatment on the show, remember that this person knows they are on camera in front of millions of people during the confrontation and the followup. Anyone would say they have health problems, quit scamming people, took down their fake profile, and are working on getting help and improving their lives in that situation. Nobody watching that show knows what this individual is doing when they're not on camera. They could have taken down the fake profile they got caught with and made fifteen more.
The second feature of Catfish that is not reflective of the reality of scammers is the confrontation. It is never safe to go to anyone's house when meeting them offline for the first time, and it is never safe to confront someone you have realized is a scammer. The show may make it look like the hosts, and the client just show up while you watch, but the show is researched, filmed, and edited ahead of time by a very large crew. They are not truly walking into an unknown situation alone or in a small group as you or you and your friends or family members would be doing. If you are not seeing the warning signs of a scammer, arrange the first meetings in a public place, and stay in public with the person. If you are seeing the warning signs of a scammer, do not confront them online or offline. Cut off all contact immediately. You have no idea what they would do if someone were to confront them without the benefit of a major television network to back them up. In this way, Catfish does more harm than good.
“I have found the love of my life. Our relationship exists both offline and online. I have no desire to cheat. I am only online to make strictly platonic friends. This means I have no need to worry about being scammed.”
Scammers have no problem amending their scams to friendship scams if they think they can get away with it. All they have to do is shift the declarations of romantic love to declarations of the type of love you feel for close platonic friends and family members. The scammer might start telling you you are the son or daughter they never had, or that you are like a sister or brother to them instead of telling you that you’re the love of their life.
The rest is going to unfold in pretty much the same manner as a romance scam, with some alterations for the relationship you think you have. They’ll try to get you to send them money because “we’re family” instead of because “we’re building a life together.” They’ll want you to keep the whole situation secret because “people might think it’s weird for adults to make friends online” or “your biological siblings might get jealous.” The scammer may not be as secretive about talking to other people, but they will still want to keep you from knowing about it if they are talking to several people the way they talk to you. You’ll know something’s up if everybody they meet is “their adopted sister,” or “like a son to them.”
Talking to people we do not know well online is a fact of life today. Even if we do not set out to meet someone or make a new friend online, simply responding to someone’s comment in a Facebook group can open you up to communication with a scammer. Keep talking to people, but keep aware of the red flags, and of our own natural tendency to talk ourselves out of seeing them.