Arts, society & culture

A tangled web

Online dating has led many people to love, but it has also paved the way for catfishers and romance scams. How can you protect yourself from those with nefarious intentions?

Audrey Lindt had been divorced for three years when she decided to try online dating. A successful woman over 50, she was immersed in her work and hadn’t given much thought to dating apps. However, with her husband of 30 years out the picture, and her children starting families of their own, she found herself hungry for new adventures.

“It was my daughter who set me up on my first dating website as a surprise and to see me find some happiness,” she recalls. “The first one I joined was called Luxy – an exclusive dating app for people earning a certain amount of money. It was new and exciting, and it was lovely to receive messages from seemingly nice men. Enjoying the male attention and flattery was exhilarating.”

Inundated with messages, Audrey was spoilt for choice. She got talking to a businessman, who seemed to share many of her dreams in life and appeared to genuinely care about her wellbeing. After three months of talking, they arranged to meet in person in London – a central meeting point, since both were away on business at the time. Unfortunately, it became apparent that all was not as it seemed.

“As I was due to fly, he called telling me he was stuck at the airport and he needed a significant sum of money in order to be released and to fly to London,” says Audrey. “I refused to send him payment as he was demanding a lot of money. He turned nasty and shouted at me, saying I was the only one who could help him. It was then that I realised I’d been catfished.”

Catfishing, for those who aren’t up to speed with the lingo, is a method of social media deception and impersonation, in which somebody assumes a false identity. The term was first used in the 2010 documentary Catfish, in which an unsuspecting man is duped into a fake relationship on Facebook. (He thinks he’s dating ‘Megan’, only to discover it’s a fake account masterminded by a woman called Angela.)

At the end of the documentary, Angela’s husband tells an unlikely sounding story about cod. As the story goes, when live cod were shipped from North America to Asia, the fish grew lazy, and the fisherman were left with mushy flesh. It turned out you could keep the cod active by putting catfish into the tanks, hence ensuring the quality of the fish. Angela is implied to play a similar role in people’s lives, keeping them alert and on their guard.

When confronted with someone like Angela, or Audrey Lindt’s ‘businessman’ suitor, it can be hard to understand their motivations. What could inspire someone to spend so much time and energy on constructing a new identity, still less using it to trick others? According to Jonny Pelter, a cybersecurity expert and founder of SimpleCyberLife.com, there are a number of reasons why someone might want to play catfish.

“Some want to build fake romantic relationships to mitigate insecurities and a lack of self-worth,” he says. “Others cyber stalk ex-partners, lovers, or people they’re infatuated with. Others get a form of gratification from being a cyber bully.”

At the most malign end of the spectrum, some paedophiles groom children online by pretending to be a child or teenager themselves. For this reason, it’s crucial to educate your kids on the impacts of disclosing too much information on social media.

“Even seemingly obvious or basic personal information – e.g. school, home address, photos, etc. – can be used by catfishers to build rapport with unsuspecting victims,” says Pelter. “Be suspicious if someone private messages you out of the blue, and encourage your kids to only connect online with people they actually know and have met in real life.”

In the context of dating websites, catfishing often occurs as part of a ‘romance scam’, in which the perpetrator gains the victim’s trust with the eventual aim of defrauding them. Many of these scams are run on a mass scale by large criminal gangs, which work very much like call centres.

“Scammers have scripts that they use so the likelihood is, the conversational wording they’re using is a copy and paste from a script that has been posted online before by other victims,” says Pelter.

Unfortunately, romance scams are very common. In a recent survey by UK Finance, 27% of dating website users said they had been scammed by fake personas over the past year. A shocking 21% had either been asked for money, or had given money, to someone they met online, with the average sum being £321.

Overall, Brits lost £41m on romance scams in 2017, with 3,557 cases reported to the police. The figures in the US are even more galling – 18,000 victims lost $362m in 2018, according to the FBI. While anyone can be a victim, criminals often prey on those who are older and looking for companionship – especially those with the money to make the crime worthwhile.

“Lots of us are now looking for love online and this is no different for many older people,” says Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK. “During lockdown and social distancing, it’s become even more important to seek companionship and make connections with others. Unfortunately, criminals can exploit those they see as more vulnerable, whether they are lonely, isolated, recently bereaved or separated.”

She adds that romance scams can have devastating consequences, with impacts on the victims’ health, wellbeing and other relationships. There have been some galling cases reported in the media, including that of a London man who was sentenced to three years in prison after defrauding two women out of almost £300,000.

In Audrey Lindt’s case, the catfishing businessman was far from a one-off. She continued on the Luxy dating app for a while longer, but each suitor turned out to be the same, almost to the point of following a script.

“They would get your attention and would build a relationship with you over the phone – lots of them had video issues!” she says. “Around the three month mark they would ask for money in some guise or other. When you refused, they would try to make you feel guilty for having boundaries, or worse, get aggressive. As soon as I realised it was yet another scammer trying his luck, I would block them.”

There were several other commonalities. Some would-be suitors seemed ‘too good to be true’, and many had unusual jobs (“anyone digging for oil, mining for gold or military surgeons – just don’t go there,” she says wryly). For another thing, the guys always had a sob story to reel you in, and seemed unusually infatuated at an early stage.

“Their partners had died or left them, or they were lonely and ‘looking for someone just like you’,” she says. “One guy even told me he had had our initials embossed into the seats of his Bentley – but in the next breath was asking me for money.”

After some time on Luxy, Audrey switched to Tinder, but her months of playing detective had left her cynical. Her first line of questioning was always ‘where do you live and what do you do’, which cut many of the chancers out the picture. If the conversation continued past that hurdle, she would ask to meet on video. If they had broken phones, and she pushed the issue, she never heard from them again.

Jonny Pelter says these kinds of experiences are typical. He says a good way to check someone’s identity is via a video chat service like Facetime and Skype – if your suitor refuses, that’s an immediate red flag. You can also validate their backstory with a spot of judicious Googling (a complete lack of digital footprint should set off alarm bells), and do a reverse image search to check where their profile photos came from.

“It goes without saying not to give money to someone you haven’t met, but these criminals are experts in emotional manipulation,” he says. “They create scenarios designed to sweep us up in the moment, which can make us think irrationally and without perspective. If unsure, ask a friend or relative about the situation – they will be able to provide an objective view, removed from any emotional attachment.”

Audrey Lindt’s story, thankfully, has a happy ending. She was inspired to write a memoir, Misadventures in Mature Dating, which provides pointers for others navigating this terrain. And, just as she was about to give up on online dating, she received a message from a man called Adrian.

“He was a retired restaurant manager, a widower, 60 years old and in very good shape,” she says. “He seemed rather nice and normal. I liked him back and in minutes he asked if we could talk on FaceTime. We met that afternoon in a café for a few hours, then he called me every day and we got to know each other more.”

It was a stark contrast from the parade of military surgeons with broken phones and a pressing need for her credit card details.

“We are very much going with the flow and we have both agreed we are at the age that we shouldn’t do anything we don’t love,” says Audrey. “We agreed that the minute we don’t enjoy it anymore we will stop, and that was a year and half ago.”

This article appears in the Sept-Nov 2020 edition of Overseas magazine

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