The term catfishing was popularised by a 2010 documentary film called Catfish and is now used to mean: deceiving, duping, fooling or luring. Targeting people using false identities and manipulative techniques is a form of cyberbullying; everyone is a potential victim, including our children.
Organised criminal syndicates have entered this arena, and the scale and sophistication of catfishing scams have exploded.People everywhere are at risk of being targeted by scammers using false identities online, and scams are not only confined to dating apps, Facebook or Instagram. People can catfish wherever there’s the capability to communicate with others online.
Catfish are casting nets everywhere, including on LinkedIn. Regarded as one of the most trusted social media networks, LinkedIn seems an unlikely place for fraudsters. *Kyla Govender ( not her real name), who works in digital marketing, told me she’d had catfishing experiences on LinkedIn. “People think Linkedin is a safe space filled with like-minded professionals. The hook for the scam is a potential job or side hustle,” she explains.
Common hooks for these scammers are work-from-home jobs or mystery shopper gigs. Using sophisticated techniques, criminals sent a $4000 fraudulent payment to Kyla, and she was told to spend $500 immediately. She says, “I thought, sounds great! I’ve just made $3500 for maybe 1 hour’s worth of work. It sounded great; it was almost too good to be true. Well, it was. The modus operandi was to entice me to buy the products with my credit or debit card on a website that the scammers had set up. This would give them access to my bank, and they could empty my accounts.”
Luckily, Kyla mentioned this to a colleague, who warned her and explained the scam. “When I think of catfishing – I honestly associate this with desperate divorcees being duped by potential love interests. We all know about unlikely romances…and most of this happens on Facebook (Meta), which is dodgy – I never considered Linkedin to be risky. And I’m pretty tech-savvy,” says Kyla
People think Linkedin is a safe space filled with like-minded professionals. The hook for the scam is a potential job or side hustle.” Kyla
About one in three (31%), South Africans use online dating services and apps. These platforms are rich trawling grounds for catfishers and cyber-scammers with fake profiles. There’s been a massive surge in dating scams since the pandemic, with South African victims losing around R134 million in 2020.
Women are more likely to be targeted by catfishers, with 63.2% of reported victims being female, but scams have also duped men. Cunning fraudsters are leaving people broken-hearted and empty-pocketed by playing on the emotional triggers of hopeful romantics, getting them to send money, gifts or personal details via dating apps, websites or social media platforms. The statistics are likely to be higher, as victims of dating scams are often too embarrassed to report the con to the police.
The South African Banking Risk Information Centre (SABRIC) is at the forefront of combating fraudulent activity and highlights risks by running various educational campaigns. SABRIC ran a “Catfish in the Sea” campaign video series with comedian Gilly Apter, which can be viewed HERE!
Catfishing perpetrators use storylines aligned with what the victim would generally be interested in. The perpetrator assumes a persona (fake identity) to impress the victim, and photographs are carefully chosen. Once a long-distance relationship is established, requests for financial assistance follow.
Reasons vary from help with the cost of a plane ticket to visit the victim to emergency medical assistance. Victims are tricked into believing they are communicating with a genuine friend and then give help to their detriment. Victims will be exploited for as long as the perpetrator manipulates them. Funds paid are usually withdrawn immediately, and once the victim realises what has transpired, there is typically no opportunity to recover funds. SABRIC urges the public to watch out for the following red flags:
- Unsolicited communications from strangers on any social media platform – best to ignore and block
- Social media profiles with very little information should be treated with the utmost suspicion.
- Never transfer funds to people you have recently met online.
- Do not believe everything shared with you online, and use other means to verify the information first, for example, reverse image search.
- Never share your bank account details available with third parties.
- Do not share details of your financial position with strangers.
- Set the privacy settings on your social media platforms at the strictest possible level to ensure that strangers surfing the internet cannot access any of your personal details or posts.
- Be careful of how much personal information you share on dating sites and social media platforms. Fraudsters can use this information to target you with a scam.
- Be wary of people who keep promising to meet you and always cancel at the last minute, and don’t send money to a person promising to visit you.
- Should you arrange a meeting with someone you have met online, meet in a public area and possibly with friends.
- Should you suspect that a scammer is targeting you, stop all communications immediately and report it to the online dating service or social media platform.
- If you have been the victim of a scam and defrauded in the process, report the matter to the police.
“Even if the bank notifies a victim that they are about to authorise an irregular payment, they still insist on proceeding with the transaction as they don’t want to accept that they are being defrauded. That is why it’s important that bank clients consider all these red flags when engaging in a long-distance relationship with someone they have not met in person,” says SABRIC CEO, Nischal Mewalall
“Catfishing perpetrators use storylines aligned with what the victim would generally be interested in. The perpetrator assumes a persona (fake identity) to impress the victim, and photographs are carefully chosen”
Catfishing happens every day to adults and teens alike. Our kids are also targets for catfishing. Gen Z has grown up with social media, so they think they are too smart to fall for scams. This is dangerous because when someone randomly messages them, follows them or sends them a text; they’re overconfident in their abilities and are not always mindful of the risks. Catfishing is also common on social media like Instagram and TikTok. Catfishers even seek victims in places such as WhatsApp, Telegram, and Snapchat. People can catfish wherever there’s the capability to communicate with others online. Teens can be the perpetrators or the victims.
Teens also engage in their own catfishing. Impersonating someone else online is a form of cyberbullying. It is an intentional act that inflicts emotional harm on another person. Usually, the goal is to humiliate and embarrass their targets. They might use fabricated identities to lure a person into a fake relationship. Later, they may use the information they gathered to embarrass and bully the target.
This type of impersonation is a form of cyberbullying. Cyberbullies often exploit the emotions of others online, especially if they discover something that makes the person sad, depressed, afraid, or lonely. Young teens are especially susceptible to catfishing because they often “friend” people they don’t know. They also tend to share too much personal information with other people.
Beware of predators
Online predators use catfishing to identify and exploit children. An estimated 500,000 online predators are active daily, angling to take advantage. Adult predators looking to groom children online dangle their lines on popular social media platforms. The adult predator could pretend to be a similar age, may try to secure trust with fake profile pictures, will pretend to share similar interests or hook their victims by offering gifts or by complimenting the child.
Once an online relationship has been established, the groomer will often steer the conversation towards sex. The child may be pressured to take explicit photos or videos of themselves and send them to the groomer. In the most extreme cases, the groomer will pressure the child to meet in person. The groomer may blackmail the child by threatening to release the private photos or videos and share them with friends or family.
While adults who groom children online are often strangers, this is not always true. In many circumstances, the child may have met a groomer through family or other connections, and the adult builds a relationship with the child online. The child may not even realise that he or she is being groomed and may consider the groomer a boyfriend or girlfriend.
Online grooming may be difficult to detect because it often occurs while a child is home and simply using the computer. What are the hints that your child is possibly being groomed? Groomers often order children not to talk about their conduct. However, there may be signs that a child is being groomed by an online predator, including spending an increasing amount of time online, becoming secretive about their online conduct, switching screens or closing tabs or windows whenever a parent is close, using sexual language they would not be expected to know and becoming emotionally volatile.
What should your child know to avoid being catfished? The points above from SABRIC are a good starting point as they apply to adults and children. Make sure your child understands what catfishing is and have open conversations highlighting these safety tips:
“Online grooming may be difficult to detect because it often occurs while a child is home and simply using the computer.”
- Never start relationships online
Online communications remain the standard among teens. From text messages to social platforms and more, most prefer communicating online. But unfortunately, this raises the likelihood of being a victim. So encourage your teen to have more controlled in-person encounters.
- Don’t share private information
Let your child know the dangers of sharing information online. The moment private details get on the web, things can escalate. Cyberbullying, blackmailing and sextortion are real.
- Don’t send any pictures
Sharing personal or inappropriate pictures online is risky, even if sent to a friend. Teach your child to respect their privacy. Remind them that whatever gets online remains indefinitely, even if deleted.
- Don’t communicate with someone who seems off- use your intuition
Catfishers usually give off vibes. For example, the person may rarely share information and never answer calls. Unfortunately, these are red flags that victims ignore. Teach your teen how to recognise such things.
Catfishing remains a significant concern in the digital landscape, with potential victims falling prey to the deceptive tactics employed by catfishers. And experts are warning we could be entering a new era of AI-driven catfishing. AI could usher in a new generation of catfishing with Deepfakes and AI-generated faces making it harder than ever to tell who’s real or not online.
Understanding the motivations behind catfishing and being able to recognise the signs can help you and your children to protect yourselves from such scams. By fostering a sense of scepticism and maintaining caution when forming online connections, individuals can safeguard their personal information, emotional well-being and avoid becoming a victim of catfishing.
…experts are warning we could be entering a new era of AI-driven catfishing.”
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