How to protect yourself from being catfished

With Valentine’s Day approaching, my private investigations agency begins to receive more inquiries for services related to “catfishing”. This is where people have fallen for someone online, but have nagging doubts that the person isn’t quite who they say they are.

I have worked on plenty of catfishing cases, and one or more of the following 5 scenarios almost always applies:

The person has never video chatted with you.

Almost everyone has a phone with video chat capability. Whether it’s via Facetime, Skype or Facebook Messenger, there are dozens of ways to actually see the person you’re speaking to. If your online love is full of excuses or refuses to chat, it’s time to dig a little deeper.

They claim to be working on an oil rig.

This is a fairly common story in the catfishing world. The person says that they’re working on an oil rig where they don’t have regular access to a phone or a computer, and that they’re about to receive a hefty payment for their work. They’ll often ask for a short-term loan to either get home or to come and visit you. Even if they send “proof” of the payment, don’t fall for this one.

Their English is “off”.

While not every American has perfect writing skills, most know how to string together coherent, conversational sentences. If the person you are texting or emailing with misuses common words or struggles with slang, take it as a red flag. I have seen enough scam emails to know that poor writing skills is a common warning sign. Use your own inner detective skills to read between the lines.

They need money.

This begins with the claim that they’re about to come into a hefty sum of money, followed by a request for a loan to bridge the gap between now and then. They’ll often go as far as sending you “proof” of their windfall such as doctored checks, fake contracts or fake press releases. Typically they’ll ask for the cash via Western Union or a money card, and will say that the loan money is to either get home, or to come and see you. If someone you have only spoken or written to asks for money, it’s a scam.

They promise to visit, but don’t show.

They set up a time to meet, and may even send you a flight or rental car itinerary. But at the last minute something comes up: they were stuck on the oil rig, a loved one became suddenly ill, or someone was arrested. This last-minute cancellation will often come with a request for money to help them get to you faster. We’ve all had travel plans change last minute, but when it happens more than once, and when it involves a request for money, it’s probably a scam.

Even if you suspect that some of these might apply to you, how do you confirm your suspicions? Hiring a Private Investigator is a quick and easy way to confirm the person’s identity, and one we recommend. However, if you’re hesitant to hire a PI, here are a few tips for doing your own internet sleuthing.

  1. Reverse Image Search. Take their photo and use it to run a reverse image search on Google, Yahoo or Bing. Just click the camera icon to find the reverse image search option. The results will be images similar to the one you’ve submitted – and sometimes the exact one. If that image linked to someone else’s social media account, send them a message. They may not be aware that their image is being used to catfish others.
  2. Do your own digging. If the scammer claims to work for or own a company in the United States, check with the relevant Secretary of State’s office for the company’s business registration. I have encountered plenty of made-up business names that do not exist in the US.
  3. Run their name through search engines. This can yield good results when combined with details such as the oil rig they claim to work on. In that example, search for “first name last name + oil rig”. There are plenty of websites where previous victims will post their scammer’s name and the details of the scam. During one of our investigations we found an entire message board dedicated to one scammer. Try a few different search terms and see what results come back.
  4. Ask for further identification. Request that your new love produce a picture holding today’s newspaper or to write down a specific phrase and take a selfie with it. If they are using another person’s photo as their own they will not be able to fulfill this simple request.
  5. Follow your gut. If something is making you question the person you are speaking to, don’t ignore that feeling. Try to uncover things on your own first, but if you need some extra assistance, contact a private investigator and let them get to the bottom of it.

I have seen far too many people be taken advantage of by online predators. The laws in scammers’ countries are usually lax around online scamming, and pursuing an online scammer falls very low on the list of priorities for our own law enforcement. Protect yourself, both emotionally and financially, and you’ll minimize your risk of being catfished.

Phillip Lenger

Phillip Lenger

Phillip Lenger enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1999 where he possessed a Top Secret/SCI security clearance working as a signals intelligence operator. He achieved the rank of Sergeant/E-5 and served overseas in Operations Enduring Freedom & Iraqi Freedom. After receiving an honorable discharge, he attended the University of Central Florida where he obtained a B.A. in Humanities. Upon graduating, he became a private investigator in the state of Florida and 2010 founded TMS Investigations, LLC, private investigative agency that specializes in surveillance-based investigations, such as litigation support, insurance fraud, and family law cases.