Catfishing, pretending to be either a fictionalized version of yourself or someone else entirely while online, is a central theme of my second novel Chatting as Adalee. Catfishing is otherwise known as “romance scamming,” though some catfish scammers pretend to be their victims’ friends, or even employers. The goal of any catfish scam is to trick others into believing they are involved in some type of relationship that does not actually exist, but their motives and ultimate objectives may vary.
Money is the most common end goal of a catfish or romance scammer.
The practice of catfishing existed long before MTV personality and writer Nev Schulman ever used the term. Schulman reportedly likened romance scammers to catfish because an actual catfish keeps the other fish in the tank moving, and romance scammers keep their victims constantly shifting and changing to accommodate their continuously changing stories.
The original catfish scam originated in Nigeria among gangs of organized criminals. Groups of young men gather in internet cafes in Lagos, and in other cities in the region, including Accru, Ghana. These groups of men collect pictures, names, videos, and portions of text they can use to pretend to be a variety of people. Posing as their characters, the scammers join everything from dating sites to healthcare forums to social networking sites, approaching as many random people as they can. Anyone who writes back is then manipulated into believing they have found the love of their life.
Once the target has become convinced they have met their true love, the scammer pretends to be in some kind of trouble. They may say they are in jail in Nigeria or Ghana because they were there on business and cannot pay a fine or fee, or that they are being prevented from leaving the country due to unpaid bills. The target is then convinced they must pay this money for their love so that the two of them can be together. Once the first payment is sent, further tragedy requiring additional money unfolds.
The scammer across town or across the country from the victim has adapted this tactic by inventing domestic tragedies. They might claim they need prepaid debit cards to buy groceries or clothes for a needy child, or cash to pay a bill that will not take a credit or debit card.
Some catfish go for gifts instead of money, but the idea is the same.
Whether foreign or domestic, some catfish scammers ask for gifts instead of money. They may ask for cell phones, computers, jewelry, or anything else they can use in a future scam or sell for cash.
The target may believe he’s sending a laptop to his girlfriend to help her child succeed in school, when he’s really sending it to someone he would have no interest in dating so that person can use it in future scams.
Tricking people into illegal activity is another common motive for catfish scammers.
In addition to collecting cash from their victims, Nigerian scammers are famous for reshipping scams. In this type of scam, the fake love asks the victim to work with him or her, or to do a favor involving accepting and reshipping items. They swear the items are vital for their business, but claim they cannot ship them due to illness or other misfortune. The items are really stolen, or used to hide illegal items or substances. It doesn’t take much creativity for an American scammer to adapt this one.
Some scammers ask their victims to do favors for them. Eventually, these favors involve banking. The banking transactions are always illegal. But since the victim did everything in his or her name, the victim is the one who will be held responsible for the crime.
Some catfish work with the goal of luring people into their space in order to commit violent crimes.
The Investigation Discovery Channel’s show “Web of Lies” usually profiles catfish who operate with this goal. The only difference between this type of catfish and the other types is that this type actually does show up to the scheduled meeting. This is when the victim learns they are not who they said they were, and are in fact, dangerous.
Catfish who scam people in order to lure them may be intent on committing assault, rape, or even murder. This is why it is never safe to meet anyone you only know online alone, and why it is never a good idea to pursue a friendship with someone you have discovered to be a catfish. All you truly know about the person is they know how to use a computer, and they’re willing to deceive you. You have no idea what else they may be planning to do if given the opportunity.
Revenge may be a motive for catfishing.
Many catfish don’t want anything except to watch their victim’s heart break. Scams run for revenge are directed only at someone the scammer feels has wronged them in some way. The scammer may blame the target for the breakup of his romantic relationship and feel the target deserves to have his romantic hopes dashed too. Or maybe the victim and the scammer are in a relationship, the scammer created a fake profile in order to test the target’s loyalty and love for the scammer, and the target failed the test.
Although revenge romance scams are most often planned in retaliation for some type of romantic wrong, they are sometimes used to exact revenge for wrongs or perceived wrongs in other areas of life too. The supervisor who just fired someone, the coworker who “took” the scammer’s promotion, or the customer who just makes work unpleasant for the scammer may be a target.
There are people in the world who make themselves feel better by hurting others.
Sometimes, it’s the bully shoring up his own feelings of social superiority by humiliating the “lesser” person with a catfish scam in the internet version of the old fake secret admirer note in the locker. Or it may be the person who enjoys seeing what they can make another person believe, regardless of what impact this may have on the target. This is the scammer who often responds to getting caught by swearing their feelings were real. They weren’t. The scammer continued a pattern of behavior they knew would lead to the other person’s broken heart. The only thing they were in love with was the drama they got to plan and orchestrate.