Previously, Artist Cafe Utica reported on the warning signs a friend might be communicating with a romance scammer (catfish) online. These include excessive or unwarranted secrecy, changes in mood, changes in interests, financial changes, and more. (See “Ten Signs a Friend or Family Member is Involved in a Romance Scam” for details).
Noticing a cluster of signs that could indicate the prescence of a romance scammer, or catfish, in their lives is troubling. But there are ways to reach out.
Start a general conversation about relationships and/or meeting people online first.
Begin by sharing as much as you are comfortable with about your own life or that of someone you both know. This doesn’t mean start gossiping or spreading rumors. Mention a new restaurant a coworker told you she and her husband like to order from, or talk about a drive you took with your boyfriend or girlfriend, and let the conversation flow naturally. Gently note when they seem secretive or hesitate to tell you anything.
“When I mentioned that he paid for the dinner and I paid for the drinks, you didn’t say anything about the guy you’re talking to. Does he seem like an extravagent spender?” is more likely to generate further conversation than, “Why’d you look away when I mentioned money? Are you hiding something?”
The goal is to get the person to open up a little, and talk a bit about the relationship they may be forming online. Scolding, mocking, or belittling them is not going to help you reach that goal.
Do your best to have a face to face conversation.
If it is safe to do so, put on a mask, make sure your friend or relative has a mask, and have the conversation in person. If someone in either of your houses is in quarantine, or someone is frail, sick, or otherwise unable to risk any exposure to anyone outside their own household, or if your friend is far away, meet via Zoom or Skype. Text chatting is great in many situations, but you may miss facial expressions or body language that hold important cues.
If a face to face call or visit isn’t possible, try talking on the phone to allow yourself to pick up voice cues. When text chat is your only option, choose a time when both of you can sit and chat uninterrupted.
When the time comes to bring up the subject of catfishing/romance scamming directly, target your approach to the individual.
You know your friend or family member. Some people are more receptive to the direct approach. They’ll listen better if you flat out say, “That sounds like a catfish.” Other people need to discuss the issue in general and come to their own conclusion. Still others need to be guided gently. Do what you know will get a thoughtful response out of your friend, not what you saw someone do on MTV’s “Catfish” or “Dr. Phil” or anywhere else that addresses the issue.
Don’t give up if your friend seems a bit different, or reacts differently than you had hoped.
Romance scammers brainwash their victims. Your friend is under the influence of someone who has carefully isolated them, if only mentally, and fed them the narrative they want them to believe. The one you’re concerned for may lash out, dismiss your concerns, or behave as though you’re being silly, because the scammer has them convinced the two of them have a special bond others would not understand. Keep talking to them. Your words may not seem to have an impact now, but the person may remember them later.
Use your best judgment when deciding whether or not to get others involved.
Just like your approach, this depends on the friend or family member, your relationship with them, and the relationship between them and anyone you want to bring in to help. You also want to make sure anyone you involve is going to help the situation, not make it worse. We all have those friends or relatives we love, but know better than to call on in a crisis.
Speak up immediately and do all you can to stop them if your loved one is planning to send money, send expensive gifts, accept a shipment, or ship packages for their new online love.
This is a classic characteristic of an overseas, organized scam ring. Getting people to give them money or pricey items, or accept or help send boxes full of stolen goods or other illegal materials is the only true goal of the scam. Even if your friend has verified that the person is indeed in the United States, or the country they claim to be in, they could still be running a money or illegal goods scam.
Never encourage confronting or hunting down a suspected scammer.
MTV’s “Catfish” does a good service in making its audience aware of the red flags of romance scams, and in taking away some of the shame of being targeted by a scammer. But it does an even bigger disservice to its audience by sending the message that the “catfish” or scammer, is always just a socially awkward person who needs a second chance, or a lovable but slightly narcissistic prankster who needs to learn a little respect for other people. In most cases, this is far from the truth.
The scammers who get caught on “Catfish” are surrounded by a camera crew and security team, and they know it. They are fully aware that they will be seen on national television. It is in their interest to come across as harmless, awkward, and just in need of a few new friends and new interests. Nobody knows what that person is going to do once they’re no longer being watched, or if they’re telling the truth in the follow up. And nobody could predict what that person might do if their target and a friend, or even their target, a friend, Nev Schulman, and one other person showed up alone, as it appears on screen.
There is no way to know what you might be walking into or who you might be meeting. Never go after a suspected scammer.
No matter what, stick with your friend.
Writing the person off may be tempting, especially if they are especially secretive, argumentative, condescending, or otherwise unwilling to listen to anyone who reaches out to them. Remain their friend anyway. Once they emerge from the cloud of the scam, they will need the people who cared enough to speak out in the first place.