catfish (v): 1) To lure someone into a relationship by means of a fictional online persona. 2) A type of deceptive activity where a person creates a fake identity on a social networking account, usually targeting a specific victim.
You’ve met the man or woman of your dreams!

The two of you connected online and have been messaging back and forth for months. Smart, funny, and attractive, this person has an incredible but demanding job and seems to be developing real feelings for you. You’re intrigued, delighted, and maybe even thrilled to have connected with a person who might really be The One.

It’s too bad that you’ve never been able to arrange a video chat because of weird internet connection problems (even though the online messaging still works). Talking on the phone has been difficult too, because your cyber soulmate works third-shift, every day, with no lunch break. Still, it feels like a solid connection.

Then one day, the object of your affection asks you for $800. There’s a sick family member, a visa that has to be purchased, or maybe an overseas financial transaction that won’t go through without resorting to bribery.

You hesitate. You think you’re way too savvy to fall for an online dating scam like you’ve seen on MTV’s hit tv-series, Catfish. That show follows the lives of people who’ve been deceived in online relationships. It exposes people who lie about their age, marital status, financial status, and gender to trick (or “catfish”) people who are online in hopes of finding real love. Some episodes of the show concern people who were tricked into sending money to online chat partners who turned out to be scammers.

But, you wonder, what if the request you received is real? People really do find love online. And everyone has financial emergencies sometimes, right? It would be such a shame to let your suspicions kill a budding love affair. You don’t want to seem heartless or indifferent to someone who has poured their heart out to you so passionately.

So you send the money.

You receive thank-you texts that overflow with gratitude. The person on the other end of your connection calls you a lifesaver. You start to feel good that you were able to help a friend in need. Maybe you even feel a little closer to your online love interest because you’ve shared a crisis together.

But a few weeks later, you get a frantic message. The situation has gotten worse. New complications have arisen. More money is needed–$2300 more.

This is more than you can or want to send. Your suspicions are back and stronger now. You reply and explain that you’re sorry but you just can’t send that amount.

You receive torrent of messages begging, pleading, promising repayment. But you start to realize that a lot of the things your virtual boyfriend or girlfriend explained just don’t add up, so you refuse.

Then you get another message—good news, someone else can help out with $600, so all you really need to send is just $1700. Again you refuse. And after that, you never hear from this person again.

Slowly, reluctantly, you realize that you, too, have been catfished.

Scams like this are a huge industry. According to the FTC, they cost the American public $220 million in 2016. And most of the people who fall for it are not especially stupid or gullible; they are simply people who were outwitted by a professional trickster.

How can you protect yourself against scammers who steal from people on online dating sites? The best way is by knowing the tricks of the trade.

The FTC cautions that you may be dealing with a scammer if your online love interest:

  • Wants to leave the dating site immediately and use personal email or IM;
  • Claims love in a heartbeat;
  • Claims to be from the U.S., but is traveling or working overseas; and/or
  • Plans to visit but is prevented by a traumatic event or a business deal gone sour.
  • One dating site publishes an extensive list of additional red flags that may indicate that you’re chatting with a catfisher:
  • Their name consists of two first names.
  • They don’t call often, as they would rather write.
  • They are not all over the Internet—you cannot find them on Facebook or any other sites.
  • They ask about your finances.
  • The facts that they give you do not check out. They are not on the alumni list of the college they said they attended, and so on.
  • They make promises that are unrealistic.

While requests for money to help cover some emergency or to assist with travel appear to be the most common features of catfishing scams, there are other, more disturbing variations. Some involve blackmail and extortion.

Maybe you’ve sent some risqué selfies to your online chat buddy, who is now threatening to publish them online. Maybe you’re a closeted lesbian or gay man and the person on the other end of the chat threatens to out you. Maybe someone you’ve been sexting with suddenly “admits” to being underage and threatens to call the cops. And all of these unpleasant scenarios can be avoided if you make a substantial payment in Bitcoin or gift cards.

What makes catfishing scams so cruel is that they prey upon people who are just trying to make a genuine human connection, develop a friendship, find love, or even make a lifelong commitment. Perhaps one day those who toy with those people’s needs, trust, and affection will reap what they sow.

The good news is that despite the scams, millions of people have found friendship and love by using online dating sites. Online dating is now the most common way for fiancés to meet each other. In 2017, 19% of all brides met their new spouses online. While there are dishonest people on dating sites—just as there are in other environments—there are many more good, honest people who are looking to make a connection. Arming yourself with an understanding of how online dating scammers operate will help protect you from the catfishers and increase your odds of finding someone genuine.