Catfishing is when a person creates a fake identity often with corresponding social media accounts, phone numbers, photos, and addresses targeting a specific victim for abuse or fraud. These catfishers are organized, patient, and have a playbook that they follow to gain the trust of their target over the course of weeks, months, or even years. Effective deceivers even get advice from other scammers on how to proceed for their own success.
Today’s guest is David McClellan. David was an internet marketer and website builder for over ten years. He ran and executed SEO strategies for CNET where he added 1.4 billion visitors to the portfolio. He branched out as a visionary and entrepreneur 6 years ago when he created SocialCatfish.com. His website became the fastest-growing company in Riverside, California and is an Inc 500 company.“There’s a lot of emotional manipulation that goes on. If you don’t give money, scammers get emotionally abusive.” - David McClellan Click To Tweet
- [1:10] – David shares his background as an internet marketer turned entrepreneur and the start of SocialCatfish.com.
- [2:01] – He and his business partner used to build websites and then flip them but discovered that there was no resource out there regarding catfishing. So they started the website and it was an immediate success.
- [3:34] – Once David and his business partner figured out how to monetize their site, they were speaking directly with their customers and hearing their stories.
- [4:21] – David also began a YouTube channel that shares real stories, interviews with scammers, and David even got his hands on a playbook used by scammers.
- [4:50] – There is also a Facebook watch group where people can upload pictures of “scammers” to look out for.
- [5:22] – Romance scams are part of catfishing. David explains the similarities.
- [6:19] – David shares one of the most upsetting client stories regarding a lawyer sending cash to Nigeria. But through it all, she was able to send a tracking device and use SocialCatfish.com to meet the real person behind the stolen photo.
- [8:47] – David shares another story of a client who lost her husband and survived cancer herself being scammed through online dating.
- [10:38] – Romance scammers, especially those overseas, will spend hours talking to someone everyday because if it results in thousands of dollars, that is a lot of money where they live.
- [11:35] – Another story of a client building a relationship with a scammer and who she thought was his daughter. She had been secluded from her friends and family and the scammer even told her to commit suicide.
- [13:29] – Effective scammers will seclude a victim from their friends and family using a convincing story and are very emotionally manipulative.
- [14:50] – A newer trend in romance scams is that scammers are now starting to send inexpensive gifts to victims such as balloons, flowers, and cheap jewelry to build trust.
- [15:51] – When interviewing scammers, David asks them what happens if they don’t get money and the answer is that they always get money. They even refer to victims as clients.
- [16:40] – Another new trend is when scammers reveal themselves and convince the victim that they really did fall in love and need money to get out of their very poor country.
- [18:09] – David shares the noticeable differences between men and women who are victims of catfishing and romance scams.
- [21:01] – Although victims who are lonely, depressed, widowed, or divorced are the prime targets for scammers, David shares that even married people are being sucked into scams.
- [23:09] – Chris shares a story about a previous podcast guest using other people’s videos in video chat is not always a reliable method of confirming identity.
- [24:19] – David explains that there is open source software available where he could record anything and make the people in the video say whatever he wants them to say.
- [25:25] – People whose images are stolen to use by scammers are victims, too. David also tries to help these people as well.
- [26:19] – David shares a story about a man who was catfished, convinced of their real identity, and killed the woman he thought the scammer was.
- [27:09] – If you are contacted randomly by a stranger, including games with chat features like Words with Friends, and someone ever asks you for some form of money, that is a big sign of a scammer.
- [28:05] – Scammers will also tend to try to get a victim to chat outside of the dating app so their profile does not get reported and taken down.
- [29:00] – Most of the time, scammers tend to start asking for money after about 90 days, but David says that sometimes they’ll wait less time or more time before asking.
- [31:21] – Financial crimes seem not to have the same level of consequences when caught than in-person crimes. Many crimes like this are sometimes not even reported.
- [33:06] – It is not illegal to give somebody money. When it is reported to law enforcement, there’s not much police can do. You should still report it, but it is a civil issue.
- [35:18] – David also shares that sometimes there are people in the United States that are helping scammers overseas.
- [37:39] – There’s not enough education surrounding internet safety. Education is empowering.
- [38:51] – Chris shares an experience with his bank and how they are starting to be trained on making sure people are wiring money to someone they’ve actually met.
- [39:54] – We are seeing it more and more that bank employees are noticing and advising clients that they are likely being scammed.
- [41:22] – Social media sites and companies are getting better with helping educate people and prevent scams, but scammers are also getting better and more convincing.
- [44:05] – David has a private Facebook group called SCF Seekers which is all about information without judgment.
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Can you give me a little background about who you are and how you started Social Catfish?
I'm an internet marketer by trade. I've been an internet marketer for over 10 years and have now turned into an entrepreneur. We own socialcatfish.com, and socialcatfish.com has been around for six years now. We're the fastest-growing company in Riverside County in California, and we're the 112th fastest growing company in the nation right now according to Inc. Magazine.
Back in the day, when my business partner and I at the time were getting started, we would build websites and flip them. We'd build them up, build traffic, and flip them, and we heard about the phenomenon of catfishing. We're like, we don't know how we're going to make money from this, but let's build something to educate people on catfishing because there was nothing out there at the time. There may have been a Wikipedia page at the time.
We built this website and we built up a bunch of resources. I've built a lot of websites before, and without doing a lot of marketing, you're really not going to get a lot of traffic. Right away, without doing any marketing, we started getting hundreds of comments. Every week, when we started out, we were getting maybe a hundred comments a week, then it turned into a hundred comments a day of people that were running through this. We didn't really know how to monetize it—being entrepreneurs—so we're like, let's help people find out if they're being catfished, and we'll do research.
We didn't know what we were going to charge, so we put a button on our website for $6. Our service was $6 or $7 at the time. Literally, within five minutes of doing that, we got our first sell. We’re like, “Well, now we actually have to help these people out and do it. Being internet marketers, and you being in an internet industry, you learn to do a lot of research, due diligence, and all these different things when you're buying websites and all this stuff. We already had a lot of these tools, so we started off just taking orders for $7 and doing the work.
Then we’re like, “This is not enough money; it's a lot of work,” so I think we changed it to, like, $35. One of the biggest things we learned at the time is we actually would get on the phone with these people, hear their stories and what they were going through. Also, the stories that these scammers were telling them, the emotions that were involved, and we decided to build a service around that.
We started building all these tools and different services. There are a lot of other people-search websites out there and we built an image search that goes along with it. With the tools that we have, we've built similar tools to our competitors, but we've catered them more towards online dating and helping people protect themselves online.
A year-and-a-half ago, we decided to do a little bit more to help these people out. Them coming to the site, yeah, they can look up their information, but we have to be able to do something else for these people. We started a YouTube channel, started profiling different stories and educating people: what it's like to go through this, educating people on different scams and exactly how they work. We'd break them down, we'd interview scammers, and we even got a playbook from the scammers—the exact playbook they use when they scam people.
Then we built a consumer watch group on Facebook. We have this watch group where people drop images and different things, and this mob of men and women go in there and help each other out—it’s really great. We've had that for a year-and-a-half now. There are almost 4000 members in the group. That's where we are today.
That's amazing, I love to hear these stories of, “We just built it and hoped something would happen. Oh my gosh, something's happening; what do we do?” It's similar to my own story with whatismyipaddress.com.
For the audience, can you offer some clarity? Is there a difference between catfishing and romance scams, or are they the same thing?
Romance scams are typically part of catfishing. When you're catfishing somebody, you're trying to pretend to be somebody else. - David McClellan Click To TweetThey're similar. Romance scams are typically part of catfishing. When you're catfishing somebody, you're trying to pretend to be somebody else. You'd steal somebody's pictures, maybe their persona, their lifestyle, you either use their name or a different name, and you tell people you're that person. With romance scams, the same thing happens except these people are trying to get money out of you. They go and make you fall in love with them using these fake personas, and then steal as much money as they can from you.In romance scams, people make you fall in love with them using fake personas and steal as much money from you as they can. -David McClellan Click To Tweet
Yeah, that's crazy. Are there any particular stories that stand out in your mind as the most upsetting or just amazing stories that you've heard?
Yeah, lots of them. A few of them stick out. We had talked to a lawyer a few years back. She's a prominent lawyer in the New York area. She had worked in tax law and was online dating. She met a guy that said he had tax problems. She related a lot to the things he was going through—having his bank accounts frozen and everything else. He said he was this entrepreneur and he's worked on this monster contract. He sent her all this proof of this contract with millions of dollars. He couldn't complete this contract because he didn't have money for equipment and different things because his accounts were frozen.
After falling in love with him, this lady starts putting $70,000 cash in boxes. She'd wrap them in clothes and she'd mail them off to Nigeria where this person said he was at. She sent 10 boxes before the FBI had actually scanned one of the boxes. They reached out to her and were like, “What are you doing?” She's like, “I'm talking to this guy online. Here's what's going on, blah-blah-blah.” They're like, “No, you're being scammed.”
This educated, prominent lawyer just finally realized what was going on and they ended up putting a tracking device in the box and sending it over to the location. This person opens the box, takes everything out. They track it back to basically his doorstep and they contact the government saying, “Hey, look. We have this guy. Here's what's going on.” The government's like, “Well, we'll look into it. Nothing happened.”
She went through this mourning period and she's like, “I'm going to try to contact this guy. Maybe there's something there.” She goes to our site, she finds out who the real person is using his image—
And by the guy you're talking about, whose identity was used for the scam?
Absolutely. These scammers will steal somebody else's identity using their pictures and they'll pretend to be that person. She looked up who the real person was, and she was able to find contact info and reach out to him. He said, “I'm in a relationship, I'm good, and let things be.” A few months later, he reached back out to her and he's like, “Hey, you know what? Maybe we can meet.” They lived about six hours apart, they drove halfway in between, went on a date, and started dating. They were dating for four or five months when we heard this story. That's one of the crazier ones.
We have another story where she had gone through cancer the same time her husband had. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, and at the exact same time, her husband had terminal brain cancer. Over a two-year period, she basically took care of her husband while dealing with chemo at the same time, but her husband was starting to wither away because his cancer was terminal. The same day that she had her last chemo treatment—where you ring the bell because it's your last chemo treatment—that was the same day her husband passed away.
She dealt with all these crazy emotions. She had had this guy next to her every day for 32 years. All the friends that she used to hang out with were people they would hang out with as a couple. They go watch football and do all these different things together. Because she didn't have her significant other, she—over a period of time—stopped getting invited to those parties, to those dinners, all those different things.
She reached out to online dating to see if she could find somebody. The second guy she meets ends up being the scammer that fell in love with her really quickly and took everything from her. He said he was in Latin America selling cars. He would use that and say, “Oh, I need to pay for customs, and I need to do this.” He's like, “Dear, when I get back, my accounts are frozen, I'll pay you back.”
This went on for eight months. They were talking for hours every day. A lot of people are like, “How can you give somebody money you've never met?” These scammers will sit there and they'll talk to you for four to five hours a day. For them, especially if they're overseas like in Nigeria, they make $10,000 a year there. That's an insane amount of money. If they're getting hundreds of thousands of dollars, they'll spend as much time on the phone with you as you want.
She ended up mortgaging her house to a company that rented it back to her. She gave her retirement. They had savings, she gave this guy that, and she ended up selling her house, giving him most of that money. We had asked her, “What caused you to give him this money?” and she's like, “It evolved to a point where I felt like if I didn't give him the money, he wasn't coming back to the US, because I still believed his story.” She told a few people and they said, “You're getting scammed.” And it was almost proof to them that they were wrong. She just went down this dark path.
We have another story. We had this lady who met this guy. Her relationship before that was an abusive relationship. She also had issues where she couldn't have kids. This scammer had used this child that he said he had to build a bond. Every time she didn't want to give money, he'd have her talk to his daughter and play games on the phone with the daughter. She built this relationship with this kid and really became attached.
She gave over $100,000 to this scammer. It was a point where he secluded her from friends and family. She was in really deep depression to the point where she felt like she was going to commit suicide. She goes and confesses to him and says, “Look, I need you to be honest with me. I need you to come back. I need you. I have nobody else. I'm about to commit suicide, and I have no more money to give you.” He tells her, “You've got to do what you've got to do.”
Oh my goodness.
Yeah. These are a few of the crazy stories. There are a lot more, but those are a few of the crazier stories we've heard.
Let's work into this backward a little bit, and not do this in a traditional order. What are some of the behaviors that you see from the scammers towards their victims? You even mentioned there that they were separating the victim from their family and friends, just slowly isolating them. Are there other behaviors that are consistent that you see from scammers?
Are you talking about while they're engaged with you, or before, or after, or?
Let's start with while they're engaging with you. So once you've already started the relationship with them or started interacting with them, what are the behaviors they use to manipulate you?
There is a lot of emotional manipulation that goes on. If you don't give money, they become emotionally abusive. They prey the most on people that are vulnerable to this. There will be emotional abuse and be like, “This is why you're alone. This is why you can't have anybody. You can't trust me.” All these different things that they'll always throwback on you. The scammers that are experienced…
The effective ones.
Right, the effective ones will seclude you from your friends and family because they know your friends and family have your back and they're going to look out for you. They're going to talk to you constantly, they're going to be in your ear all the time telling you, “Hey, look. They're wrong. We're going to be together. I love you.” All this.
They are always setting up a story. There's always a storyline that they're setting up. They're building up an excuse why they're asking you for money and nobody else; sometimes they're getting other people involved. Some examples of that: they'll tell you they're widowed or their parents passed away. When they ask you for money, they'll say the people closest to me are gone. I don't have anybody else, even if they're 40, 50, 60, 70 years old. They usually have a child that's involved, so they work all those angles and they really try to pull on those heartstrings.
We're seeing actually a different trend—I'd say over the last year-and-a-half—where the effective scammers are actually sending gifts now. They'll send you a gift. They'll send you balloons, or flowers, or a teddy bear, or a fake ring from Amazon. It costs them $10-$20, which they're probably stealing money to get that, but it's to build trust. These people they're talking to are like, “I didn't think it was a scammer at all because they sent me something before they asked for it.” We're definitely seeing a trend there.
And there's always a reason. If they need money to get home, they'll ask you for $5000 to get home. If you can't get $5000, they’re like, “You know what? I was actually able to find $3500, I just need $1500.” So they'll almost talk you down.
I've interviewed scammers and talked to them. I said, “If you don't get money, what do you do?” They're like, “No, we get money. We will get something out of you.” That's the way they look at us. They even call their victims clients. That's how they think and talk about people. There are forums and there are even Facebook groups where you can look up these people. When they talk about their victims, they say, “Hey, I need help with this client. I need this for this client.” That's how they refer to them. Those are some of the things they'll do to keep you on this web and do it.
Another big thing they'll do—we've seen this over the last few years—they'll reveal themselves. So they'll come out, and there's little fear because the government is so corrupt, especially in countries like Africa. There's not a lot of fear that these people are going to get in trouble and get caught. They will reveal themselves saying, “I was doing it. I really fell in love with you.” They'll be like, “I'm in this country and I'm poor. I need you to send me money, or my friend's going to send you money; I need you to send it to me.” Or, “I'm working on this other client and I need you to do a video for me to help the client believe it. I just need this money because I’m so poor and I have nothing; I have no food.”
These people are so used to talking to the scammer every single day that we've actually talked to men and women—mainly women—and they say it was that person that was there talking to me every day. I have literally talked to people that are like, “Look, I have tons of friends. I have lots of friends. I go hang out with friends every single day, but I don't have that male figure in my life, or I don't have that female figure in my life, and that's a basic human need that everybody has.” I've even heard people say, “Look, I don't regret giving money because at least I have that person in my life during this dark time in my life.”
It's really interesting how everything plays out, and the different needs from men and women, because they're very different. Women really want to have that conversation and talk and feel good about themselves, so have people tell them they're beautiful. Men are different. It's typically more sexual in nature where they meet women that their images are usually stolen from porn stars or those types of people, and they'll leverage that part of it to steal money from men. So it's very different, men and women. Users that come to the site—it's actually pretty close to 50/50—people that actually come out about this are mainly women, and I think because men are typically embarrassed to talk about this.
This is a general view, I think, that men should be, and maybe because those “relationships” are a little more sexual in nature, there are more negative public consequences of something like that. People don't necessarily view the men as victims in quite the same way as maybe the women would.
I was recently talking with a woman who—I forget how I ended up getting in contact with her—was a real estate agent and she was contacted by a man who was a disabled person in a wheelchair who was looking to rent a new place because his girlfriend was going to come to visit.
After hearing enough details, she's like, “I think this guy's being scammed.” It's a total scam. She sent me some of the materials, and like you said, I found the woman's photo. It was lifted from some porn actress—lifted from her site. She goes back to him and says, “Hey, this is a scam.” He's like, “No, it can't possibly be a scam.”
She ends up calling the local police in her town and says, “Hey, can you do a welfare check on this guy, just make sure he's OK and talk to him about this, because I don't know what the scam is, but it just felt wrong from the beginning when he told me the story.”
This is the same sort of thing. He didn't have people in his life, and this person presented themselves as being available, wanting to come and visit, wanting to come and talk. I don't know whose apartment was going to get paid for or how, but it was really neat to hear the story from a third-party person, of someone who just happened to be on the periphery of this story and cared enough about this guy to get involved, to try to do something, and try to help him from becoming more of a victim.
We definitely talk to third parties. I think it's difficult for them because most of the time, these people are blinded. There are certain types of people that make you more susceptible to these types of scams. People that are lonely, depressed, or widowed, they're divorced, those are the prime targets for these scammers, but it really includes everybody. I've talked to married people.
Not to go on too many stories, but I just thought of one that we recently talked to. This is a guy, he's 65 years old, and he's talking to this 25-year-old woman from San Diego. She's really from San Diego, we found the account. She's lied to him for the last two years. She sent him a photoshopped picture of him and her, and told him they got married. He mounted this picture on his wall. It’s 4 feet wide, a big portrait picture. She sent him this fake marriage certificate and had him call a number to verify that it was real.
This is a guy that can't see very well. She definitely took advantage of this person. He comes to us, and we're like, “Look, none of this is real.” We’re getting all this proof, and he still doesn't believe us. Some people you want to help so badly, but they're not willing to be open.
One of the first episodes that I did for the podcast, I was interviewing Jeffrey Hayzlett who's a Fortune 500 CEO. His images have been used in these ongoing romance scams and catfishing. He gets emails weekly from either victims or family members of victims. For years, he's gotten this, “Can you help convince my family member that you're not really dating them?” Now part of his mission is talking to these people, saying, “Look, it's not me. I'm happily married, I have kids, I have grandkids. I'm not contacting you on Facebook—I don't do that. I'm not having an affair with you.”
The stories that he was telling—the lengths that scammers would go through—was pretty interesting. One of the advice that I’ve often given people is that you want proof of life, at least at a minimum. Get on a Skype video, FaceTime, some sort of interactive, real-time video. He says what they've started to do, because he's a fairly public person—he's been on a lot of podcasts, there are a lot of videos of him out there—the person will play the video but no audio. And then they'll start and stop the video, start and stop the video, talk over it, and, “Oh, I'm having problems. I'm at the airport. I'm having problems. Let me just shut down the video and I'll talk with you.” I was like, “Oh my gosh, even the whole concept of, ‘We’ll just have a video conversation’ is not even a reliable method of confirming these things now.”
There are a few issues with that. When you get on and somebody replays a video and it's blurry or grainy, especially if you're in love, you start ignoring these things. There's a new technology out called Deepfake technology. Have you heard of that?
I could record this podcast, and I could basically make you say whatever I want you to say. I could call your mom up and say, “Hey mom, I'm stuck in prison and I need you to send $5000 ASAP.” She would hear your voice, I could type everything in and make you talk. It's really scary that technology is out and some of these are open source. You can go create this stuff right now.
We've talked to lots of people that have sworn up and down they've talked to these people. They've sent us the videos and it's the same thing. These videos are either dubbed over or they're silent. We had a lady yesterday that sent us this video. It was this guy that didn't even have his mouth open and the scammer was talking. I told her, “His mouth's not moving,” and she's like, “I think you can kind of see it moving,” and they're just so brainwashed, unfortunately.
We actually work with a lot of people that have their images stolen. Earlier this year, we started realizing how bad of a problem that is, and these people are victims, too. We work with a lot of military people, gay models, and people that work on ships. Those are the prime targets, and these people have their images stolen all the time.
What we do is we work with them, we don't charge them anything, we monitor their images every week, and we work to get them taken down. It's not a service that our company provides but we just do it because it's the right thing to do, and we have resources. We realize what these people go through because you hear about the victims and it's really sad what happens to them. But these people that have their images stolen are victims too, and like you said with the other guy, it's part of their life now. They wake up with a hundred DMs every morning, people swearing up and down that that's them. Some of them are scared. Some of them are like, “I've had people show up on my doorstep.”
There was this story—I want to say two years ago—where this guy was scammed by this woman. He was catfished by this woman's pictures, found out who the real person was, showed up at her doorstep, and killed her because he was so convinced that it was really her. A lot of times, people don't know what's real and what isn't because everything's based on a lie.A lot of times, people don't know what's reality and what isn't because everything's based on a lie. -David McClellan Click To Tweet
Are there any other telltale signs, like videos, could be faked. What are the telltale signs in your mind of things that people should be aware of, particularly with where things are trending?
You can always go back to basics. If somebody randomly contacts you, especially on social media, dating websites. They're targeting any type of chat app right now. Even the games that you play, like Words With Friends where you can chat with people, they're targeting those now because people have their guard down. A lot of people think that if they're on a paid dating website, all these scammers are not. They're just as bad on Christian Mingle and Match.com.
If somebody randomly messages you, they fall in love with you relatively quickly, and then they ask you for some form of money—whether it's a gift card, cash, bitcoin, anything—and especially if they go outside the network. A lot of times what they'll do is they'll take you from a dating site or social network to Google Hangouts, for example, or WhatsApp.
The reason they do this is they're scamming 50-100 people at one time. They're working on 50-100 people at one time. People find out and report their profiles. They get taken down, change pictures, all these different things. If they take you over to WhatsApp or Google Hangouts, they don't have to worry about their profile being taken down from this dating site that they're on or this app that they're on. Those are the telltale signs.
If somebody asks to wire you money. Just because someone asked to send you money doesn't mean they're not trying to scam you. You can get in trouble with money laundering, and that's stuff you don't want to do. I have a buddy that's a cop and he's like, “We arrest people like this all day long. They have no idea and they get in trouble for it.” So you have to be really careful with stuff like that. It's not just you sending money, it's other people sending money to you and you forwarding that money to other people.
Those are the big, big telltale signs. The scams evolve and there are different variations of them, but anytime anybody asks you for anything like that, those are big red flags.
Do you have any idea what the normal time is, from when an introduction between a scammer and his client—we'll use that terminology—when that first interaction happens until when the scam happens?
Usually 90 days. They'll ask for money within 90 days. We've definitely had scammers go way longer. We've had scammers go eight or nine months or a year-and-a-half, and it's been as short as a week. I think it really just depends on how far they feel they've gotten with you
There are different types of scammers. Sometimes you'll be talking to somebody and then you're like, “This person sounds different now.” What we found out is that these scammers—there are different types of scammers—there are people that are really good at finding their victims or their “clients,” and there are people that are better at the conversation part. What they'll do is they'll team up and be like, “I'm going to find you these victims. I'll get them going then I'll hand them over to you, and you just give me a percentage of what you'll get.”
In the background that's happening all the time. Anytime you send money, the person that's accepting the money is taking a percentage and giving it to the scammer. If there's somebody at the top that's helping these scammers out, whether they're giving them a playbook or coaching them or whatever, they're taking money off the top. This is happening all over the place; it's really crazy.
Last week, I was interviewing a reformed cybercriminal and he ran a cybercrime empire. He was talking, not about this in scams necessarily, but about hackers and people selling data. You might have someone who's really good at obtaining data, but they're really bad about selling it on the open market. He was in the business of helping to facilitate getting the people that were good with the data—getting it to the people that were good at selling it—with people that were good at marketing it, and it was the same sort of thing. That information and that scam, the criminal activity was just being passed around from one entity to another who are good in that one little aspect of it.
I listened to a podcast a few weeks ago. One of the things the guy was talking about—the white-collar crime—you really don't get in that much trouble for it. He's like, “I was in jail with people that were in jail for six or 12 years, and they stole $200 million from people. Versus you go—you’re on the street—and you're selling drugs, you get 25 years. These criminals are like, “If I get caught, I just want to steal as much money as I can in the meantime and I'll be out in like three, six, or 10 years, and I can get a buttload of money.”
It really does seem to be the case that financial crimes are not treated nearly as seriously as in-person crimes, let's say. I just published an episode about embezzlement, and something like 75%–80% of embezzlement cases never even get reported to the police because people are embarrassed by it, or it was a family member—they like the person, and as long as they're not around my business anymore, I'm OK not thinking they're going to go do it somewhere else.
There was $200 million lost last year for romance scams. We talk to people every day—we have the groups that we work with—and it's the same thing. I would say, like, 80%-85% of people don't report these scams. Sometimes it's a small amount like $25, sometimes it's $250,000, and they're too embarrassed to report it. Two-hundred million dollars is a lot, but if you have only 15%-25% of the people actually reporting it, it's a lot more than what it is.
That number is probably significantly higher. How often are you dealing with or seeing governments and law enforcement just like, “Nope, we're not interested,” or, “We're just not going to do anything about it?” Obviously, Nigeria is kind of the king of this place, but do you even see that domestically?
Yeah, we see it a lot, unfortunately. The problem is if you ask me for money and I give you money, it's a civil issue. If you don't pay me back, I take you to court. There are some states that are coming up with laws to combat this, but it's really not illegal to give somebody money. They are doing it under false pretenses, identity theft, and other things, but it's not illegal to give somebody money. When these people go to the police and report it, a lot of times the police can't do anything about it because they're like, “It's a civil issue. Take them to court.” Or they're like, “You shouldn't have done that.”
We always recommend going to the police and reporting it. Whether they do anything or not, you have to report it. Also, report it to the FBI. You have the Internet Crime Complaint Center. Report it there. What happens is if enough people report it, and there are enough breadcrumbs—all these scammers leave breadcrumbs, whether it's usernames, images, phone numbers, emails, or whatever they use—eventually, some of these people are going to get caught up and make mistakes. We often see where they leverage people in the US, or sometimes there are just people in the US that are involved in this stuff.
We had a case—probably three years ago—where this lady contacted us, and we helped her find out she was being catfished. We gave her all the information and we're like, “Look, go to the police.” She went to the police, she contacted a super brilliant detective, and he started getting involved. I think she'd given $5000. It was a lot of money but not as much as we've seen some people lose.
The scammer was asking for more money, and the detective told her to tell the scammer, “I don't have any money in my bank account because I gave you all my money. I have money in my investment account and I can't transfer the money because I have no money in my bank account.” He had asked for $50,000 after that. She's like, “I have $150,000, so I have plenty of money. I just can't access it because I don't have any money in my account. I'm actually negative.”
So after, like, three weeks of the scammer saying, “I need you to do it, I need you to do it,” he has somebody go into a bank and wire $1500 to her so that she has money in her account, so she can transfer it. They actually filmed somebody walking into a bank in Texas. I don't know what happened after that, but there are people in the US that are helping other people out. Sometimes they're victims, sometimes they know exactly what they're doing, but for sure, always report it.
Unfortunately, a lot of people report it and when you report it, it's probably not going to give you closure. But it might help somebody else out and it might give the FBI just enough information to actually put something together, put some people in jail, slow them down, or whatever the case may be. At the very minimum, now we know that there is $100 million being lost every year. Politicians are getting involved and seeing how important this is. And dating sites and social networks are actually starting to realize.
I believe that the way to combat this is through education. There are always going to be these scammers out there, but if we can educate people about this if we can show them the signs if we can help them feel empowered.
We interviewed somebody last week, and during the interview—she was very smart, by the way, very smart woman—she had talked to the scammer and he had given her information to transfer money to. So she called the bank, and she did all this due diligence, but she's like, “I don't know anything about the Internet. I'm 65 years old.”
She's like, “I called the bank and I called all these people.” They're like, “Yeah, that's a real account,” and blah-blah-blah, but she never googled the name or ran the picture because she didn't know anything about that. She ends up sending this guy—I want to say—$20,000. She knows how to run an image search, and she feels super-empowered now. Even though she lost the money, she's like, “I just feel like this new knowledge that I have, and I feel almost powerful,” and she feels great. If we can empower people and teach them how to do this and to protect themselves, that's the key.
When you go to school, they teach you about drugs and finance. Well, they teach you how to take out student loans—lots of money in student loans. They teach you all the basics, but they don't teach you about internet safety. The Internet is the Wild Wild West, and you and I being internet entrepreneurs, the internet's still the Wild Wild West. If you look at how the internet's changed, shifted, evolved, algorithms, ad networks, and all these different things that have changed over the years—five years ago—they were very primitive. Now, they're significantly more advanced.
Five years from now, 10 years from now, we're probably going to have an internet that's way more sophisticated than what it is today. But we're not teaching that in schools in most cases. That's what needs to change and we need to work on trying to educate people as much as we can.
The good thing is, I think corporations and banks are now starting to at least have some stopgap measures in place for these sorts of things. Awhile back, I was transferring money to a family member overseas and had set up a new bank account to do it because my local bank doesn't do the international swift transfer. It gets complicated.
I had set up a new bank account just to be able to send money overseas. I deposited money in the account, let it sit for a couple of days so the bank's happy with it, went online, sent the wire, and a couple of days later, someone from the bank called and says, “Hey, this is so-and-so from the bank, and we see that you were sending a wire transfer. Have you met the person that you're sending it to?”
The anti-scam side of me was like, “Oh, this is awesome. This is so cool.” I was really impressed. I had to jump through hoops with the lady from the bank. It wasn't just like, “Hey, do you know who you're sending the money to?” “Yeah.” “You sure you got the account number right?” “Yeah.” “OK, good luck.” They were like, “Who is this? Have you met them? How do you know this is a legitimate account number for them, and that wasn't someone who intercepted an email or pretended to be them?”
She probably had 20 questions for me that were really good, legitimate, like, “Are you really, really sure that you're sending the money to who you think you are, because once we send it, it's not coming back.” It was cool to see that the banks are actually starting to do something about it from their perspective and not just, “Oh, you told us to wire money? OK, we're going to wire money.”
We spoke to a lady about a month ago. That's how she found out she was being scammed. The bankers like, “Hey, I hate to tell you, but you're being scammed. This is a romance scam.” We're definitely seeing that more and more. Companies like Western Union have procedures in place to do this. I've sent money through Western Union. I actually put the wrong name because it was overseas and I was paying a freelancer. I wrote the name wrong and he still got the money. It's only as good as the people that are on the other end.
I even saw about a month ago, too, on Facebook, a random person messaged me. There was, on the top of that message, on Facebook Messenger, that said, “Hey, be careful about messaging people you don't know,” and it talked about scams.
I think more and more businesses and websites are seeing what's happening, and they're actually doing something about it because if you really think like Facebook, that's probably the last thing they think about. It's business-run, they're running ads, and the government's calling them to go testify and all this fun stuff. But now, they're dealing with scams and trying to figure out—they're a social network—how to keep people from being scammed. I definitely think a lot of these businesses and sites can do more, but things are still like the Wild Wild West, and a lot of them are just trying to figure it out.
And the scammers are getting better. I had an interview with Jim Browning who runs a popular YouTube channel on tech support scams. Like you talked about, these scam call centers have playbooks, the scammer boss grades the guys that are working for him, and if you're not getting enough money, you get fired.
What he said is one of the things that he found that he was able to get out of their network—he hacked in and got some of their files—was that they had a whole list of instructions on how to coach people when they get those phone calls from the bank, or when they go to 7-Eleven and buy $3000 of iTunes gift cards. They now have coaching to tell the client, “Here's what you tell the person behind the counter—that you're buying gift cards for your office or for your family for Christmas—if they ask you.” Some elaborate stories as to why they do that. They're now starting to coach the victims on how to talk to the bank to let the transfers go through. It's getting scary.
We've seen where they'll message each other about exchange rates for gift cards. They're like, “Hey, don't use Google Play because exchange rates aren't very good on them. Use iTunes or Steam. They're even doing stuff like that, so it's not primitive. It's very advanced stuff, and they're masking their IP addresses.
Even Facebook. We were talking about this last week where there are all these things they look at. I have no doubt to determine if the accounts are real or not. These people are changing their IPs and all these different things to make sure that these people are who they say they are, and probably flag anything on their account.
They're even buying seasoned accounts. These guys will say, “Hey, look. I need a Facebook account that's eight years old and has 25 friends or whatever.” They're buying these Facebook accounts to scam other people. The people are effective. They're very experienced and they know what they're doing. This is a whole network working together, not just one person.
It's not just some random guy in his garage scamming you. It's an organized business. It's organized crime.
That's absolutely crazy. One question. The Facebook group that you mentioned, how can people find that Facebook group to get help if they're a victim of catfishing, or if they have a family member who's a victim?
You can just search for SCF Seekers on Facebook—it stands for Social Catfish Seekers. It's a private group and you have to answer a questionnaire, and we try to do our due diligence before people join it. Make sure and fill out that questionnaire or you won't be allowed in the group. Go there, it's a really good support group. It's about information. It’s not about judging. It's not about what you've been through. It's about, let's provide people with really good information and educate them on what's going on.
And if people want to find out more about you or socialcatfish.com, where can they find you?
They can go to socialcatfish.com and check us out. It's a self-serve service, or they can hire us to help them out. We also have Social Catfish on Instagram and Facebook, and we have a YouTube channel called Catfished where we highlight stories of people that have gone through romance scams, or people who have had their images stolen, and educate people about those too.