Californian company Social Catfish was given the playbook by a young male scammer who had ripped off one of the company’s clients. The company verifies the identities of online scammers, and was created in response to thousands of people asking for help with “catfish scams”.
Co founder Moe Meyers said the scammers “talk to hundreds and hope someone bites”.
He was struck by how the script provided a line for every situation from “what to say when friending someone [to] what to say if someone asks what they do for work. The list goes on for every situation you can think of. There is an answer for it.”
Most catfish scams steal the identity and photos of someone in the military, the United Nations, or who claims to be posted in a remote location. Scammers claim to be widowers who have lost their wives in tragic circumstances, and often lack photos of family or friends.
Delia Rickard, the deputy commissioner of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, said dating and romance scams are on the rise. “These scams aren’t going away, and they’re only increasing,” she said. The ACCC’s Scamwatch finds people aged 55 to 64, mostly women, are the most at risk.
In 2017, there were 3763 reports of romance scams with nearly a quarter reporting losses totalling $20.5 million. In 2018, there were 3981 reports, with a third reporting losses of $24.6 million. In the first three months of this year, losses amounted to nearly $5 million.
Cybersecurity expert Professor Monica Whitty from the University of Melbourne said the scammers were part of international organised crime networks and were experts in psychology. The scripts had got better and more persuasive over the years, and after a relationship or conversation had begun, it was very difficult to convince a victim it was a scam. “Even when you present them with information, [the victims] often want to look for loopholes to believe,” Professor Whitty said.
She encouraged anyone thinking of having a private conversation with someone they don’t know on social media – via Facebook Messenger, for example – to first Google the person and and do a reverse image search.
According to Social Catfish, the Nigerian scammers aren’t only active on Internet dating sites including Tinder, Bumble, Plenty of Fish, or OkCupid. Romance scams have also happened as part of messages on Words with Friends or Fortnite.
Barbara El-gamal was targeted by romance scammers when she was playing Words with Friends.
When asked to read the playbook, she said the lines looked familiar. “This book is just further evidence of how disgusting these people are, playing on every emotional string of vulnerable women.”
When the scammers are asked why they can’t make telephone calls or use services like Skype or Facetime, they are provided excuses. These include claims they could “detonate bombs so for security issues we don’t use phones” and that calls could alert the Taliban.
The scammers are also provided with responses to questions asked by victims.
When asked what turned them off, they were encouraged to say, “Anything fake, lies, deceit, cheating, quarrelling and argument.”
When the relationships start to develop, the scammers are provided with fictional love notes and details of graphic and sex dreams that they have had about the subject of the scam.
“I began kissing the back of ur neck. You softly moaned, holding my warm hand to by breast. …. You continued to moan softly, calling me by name. ‘Please baby, you said, you want me so bad’.”
“I am not a guy that use and dump women no no no i am a very faithful and Godly man .. i know how to handle my women heart and keep it safe,” the scammer’s script says.
Julie Power is a senior journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald.