‘Don’t keep it a secret’: Spike in romance & catfish scams, reports BBB

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Romance and catfishing scams are on the rise, according to officials with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) of Middle Tennessee and Southern Kentucky.

Robyn Householder, BBB President and CEO, told News 2 of two romance scams already reported to them this week.

“One is both a romance scam and an imposter scam, because the fraudster is using the name and picture of a legitimate military gentleman that retired. Clearly, that’s not really who it is. The gentleman retired, I believe in 2011. But, he has just enough information from the legitimate officers social media to be able to pull his name, his rank and some of the things he’s involved with. So, he’s using that information to draw the victim in,” said Householder.

The second scam is your typical romance scam.

“The scammer has been grooming this individual for some time, getting to know them and telling their story. Lo and behold, they are traveling; they can’t get back to the United States because their credit card has been stolen or somehow compromised. So, they want the victim to either wire or more recently, use cryptocurrency to send them money. This particular victim, the scammer tried to get $11,000 from them. Unfortunately, she did give them $3,000, but you know what it’s just not a good situation. Again, she did do it through cryptocurrency, which of course you can’t get back,” explained Householder.

Cryptocurrency is being utilized more frequently by scammers, Householder said it’s like an electronic version of a gift card. She also told News 2 the victim felt awful.

“Her last line in her report was that she just feels so stupid. And you know, the downside of romance scams is it is very embarrassing. First off, some folks are even embarrassed to be online looking for a relationship. It’s even more embarrassing when you fall victim. So now, you have another aspect to this situation and that this person already felt isolated. Now, they’ve been victimized so you can potentially see anxiety, stress and depression come out of these kinds of transactions, which is very, very frightening,” said Householder.

Householder said romance scams have been on the rise consistently year over year, and the BBB has been tracking it since 2015.

“It’s grown by more than $100 million dollars every year. So, it’s absolutely on track to be a billion. We’ll realize a lot of people don’t report this because it is ’embarrassing’, so chances are it’s substantially larger than that,” said Householder.

That same embarrassment felt by victims such as Cynthia Padley in Texarkana, Texas. She told News 2 she was scammed by a man claiming to own a restaurant in Tennessee.

“It was in Chattanooga. He said it was a steakhouse ‘Western Sizzler.’ I questioned him, but later he showed me pictures, and I said ‘that’s not steaks that’s more like Mexican food,’ and I was catching him in little lies here and there,” said Padley.

She said she met him in multiplayer word game.

“I met him on Words with Friends. He seemed like a really nice guy. He was showing me around his restaurant; he said he had to close it because of the COVID. And, he became my boyfriend. He took up all my time. A lot of scammers take up all your time, so you have nothing to think about besides them,” explained Padley.

That wasn’t the first time the 71-year-old widow said she was fooled by a romance scammer. A few years ago, her online fiancé swindled her for more than $120,000. She also met him on Words with Friends.

“I’ve been playing this game for seven years, and I met him. He was really nice and we started chatting. I had no idea he was a scammer. He messaged like a regular person. He worked on an oil rig, that’s another red flag for women. He worked on an oil rig as an engineer,” said Padley.  

In a report by the BBB in 2018, they differentiate between a catfishing scam. In a catfishing scheme, the catfisher sets out to deceive his or her victim but does not at first intend to take money. In a romance scam, the perpetrator intends from the beginning to defraud the victim. According to the study, one company that screens profiles for dating companies said that 500,000 of the 3.5 billion profiles it scans every month are bogus.

News 2’s Alex Corradetti also spoke with the hosts of “Catfish: The TV Show”, Nev Schulman and Kamie Crawford, about what they’ve seen during their time filming the show during the pandemic.

“There’s also an unfortunate tendency for people to blame themselves. Even though yes, you participated and maybe should have or could have made better decisions and been more skeptical or done more research, but it doesn’t mean it’s your fault that someone lied to you,” explained Schulman.

Crawford said they’ve seen a lot of victims fall prey to a catfishing scam for years at a time.

“People have been talking to these people for 1-2 years – sometimes longer. But, there’s definitely more instances of more people who are like we were going to meet up. Then the pandemic happened, and that has become an understandable excuse. But time is running out, time is ticking. Things are opening back up again the same excuses are not going to be valid or workable in a year from now,” said Crawford.

Schulman believes we will not see the real effects of the pandemic until next season.

“There are so many people who are only now in these new relationships online, who are going to begin to discover the person they’ve been talking with, who has been postponing because of the pandemic still won’t meet them in the next three, six or nine months. We are going to see the wave of people who have been getting ‘catfished’ start to trickle in over the next few months,” explained Schulman.

Householder, Schulman, and Crawford said there are things people can do to prevent falling victim to a scam like this.

“Scammers try very hard to get you off a legitimate website so they can start communicating with you and not have it monitored by that well-known dating website. We always say when you’re looking for any type of transaction, be it love, a puppy or whatever, don’t respond to things that are unsolicited. Go directly to the organization’s website so that you know that you’re dealing with something that’s legitimate,” said Householder.

“I think your intuition is your best friend. Sometimes when it feels too good to be true, it’s because it is. And you have to you know listen to your gut and your common sense sometimes,” said Crawford.

Householder said COVID has given scammers a big gift in terms of the shift of our lifestyle.

“The only way you’re going to be able to help us and help yourself as well as others is to let us know. That’s going to trigger a whole variety of things in terms of an investigation. It also allows other consumers to know that this is something you’re going to want to stay away from. That information is uploaded to the appropriate federal agencies and local law enforcement so that they can also investigate and look into things. Don’t keep it a secret; you’re not alone,” said Householder.

If you’ve fallen victim to a romance scam, you can get help. You are encouraged to call your local authorities, BBB and put the details of the scam on the BBB Scam Tracker by clicking here.

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