Austin, TX

Been Catfished Lately? I Have. Why Aren't We Talking about the Growing Problem of Romance Scams?

Kerry Kerr McAvoy

Why aren’t we talking about the exploding number of fake online dating profiles?

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There’s a dirty little secret that most people either don’t know about or aren’t discussing. It is the number of fake profiles that clog up our social media accounts. Since moving to Austin, Texas, I have reopened my online dating accounts, and once again, I’ve been hit with an avalanche of fraudulent profiles. These are scammers who say they live in my surrounding area. Once we start chatting, it quickly becomes apparent that they are not in Austin, not even in Texas. There is nothing local about them.

HBO just released a documentary, Fake Famous, examining this issue. The problem is especially noticeable on online dating sites. In 2018, over $143 million dollars was reported stolen by romance scammers, and that number is on the rise.

The Problem of Fake Profiles

I must get at least two or three inquiries per week from fake guys. Oh, that’s not including the number of Facebook friend requests and Instagram messages.

When I first started dating, I had no idea how common this was.

I remember creating my first profile. The effort I put into taking photos and writing a description of my likes and dislikes. Then came the moment when I had to push the publish button. Butterflies bounced in my stomach, so I put the phone down, figuring the likes and messages wouldn’t instantly appear. An hour later, I checked. To my shock, twenty or more guys had expressed interest.

Since this was an app tailored to a specific religious group, I figured most of these people were legitimate. Nice guys. Boy, was I in for a rude awakening.

Catfishers prey on the emotionally vulnerable

My first several lengthy texting or emailing relationships, I’m sure, were bots or scammers. I still remember how excited I was to get lovely long letters that included photos and descriptions of these guys’ families.

One of them was a widower, like me. He was an older gentleman from overseas who’d moved here for love and now found himself raising his seven-year-old son alone.

I showed my mom one of his notes.

She read it through and then smiled. “I wished someone would say these things to me.”

I agreed it felt wonderful to hear such sentiments.

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I began to notice something odd. If I read his notes aloud, the syntax and cadence were wrong, but not bad enough to pick it up when skimmed. I felt uncomfortable and broke off contact.

I grew warier after that first experience. I found an online site that offered background checks and ran the names of each new man I met through it. A shocking number of them were identified as nonexistent.

I hired a PI for help

Then someone contacted me through the business-related social media platform, LinkedIn. Since it was reputable, I assumed this person must be legit, plus it was a casual note about work.

I learned he lived in Eastern Europe and was single with no kids. Our chatting sessions soon grew longer and more personal. All-day, I’d wait for his appearance as my feelings intensified. Yet, I was suspicious, so I contacted a private investigator for help.

Ten days later, the PI called me instead of emailing, alarmed. The man I’d been texting didn’t exist.

The PI then explained what would happen next. I would soon get some form of communication that the guy I’d been texting was in trouble and in need of help — cash. Sure enough, it happened just as the PI had predicted. I, of course, cut it off and blocked that email and phone number.

The catfishers lately have gotten better at hiding

Six years ago, it was easier to spot fraudulent accounts. Misspellings and grammatical errors filled their profile descriptions, emails, and messages. They came on strong with words of affections. Many were widowers with kids, from overseas, or working jobs that required travel.

These days, it’s gotten harder to detect the fake guys. Their use of English has improved, and the backstories are more plausible. They post photos of average-looking people with average credentials.

I often can’t identify them by their profile alone; it takes several interactions. And even then, I’m not sure if I’m getting to know someone real or not.

How this has affected my emotional health

Can you imagine the impact this has had on trying to find love?

I have to approach every interaction with guardedness. I can’t ever make the mistake of getting too excited for fear this person has plans to manipulate or cheat me.

These days I insist we meet in an open space, like Lady Bird Park, for coffee. Or, I suggest we stroll downtown Autin along the Colorado River. It's shocking how many of them suddenly disappear? Some aren't ready for a real relationship. Then there are the others who aren't from Austin, Texas. They'd been leading me on. Once they know the jig up, they're gone.

It’s tiring and disheartening. I often take long breaks because I can’t stand having to keep my walls up until I’m confident who I’ve met is real. Oh, I’ve gotten better at asking for full names and warning that I’m running a cursory check. Or, I’ll ask for a social media profile link.

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One guy took several hours before he complied. I clicked on his link to find ten posts on his profile, all with that day’s stamp. He had quickly cobbled something together, hoping I would overlook the profile’s newness.

Let’s Support One Another

Do you want to know the saddest part about all of this? The most appealing and normal-looking profiles are the ones likely to be catfishers. These men advertise they want a long-term relationship, have a stable job, and have a religious practice. When I see this combination, I get concerned; they probably are a scammer.

I hear I should get out more and meet people. Find a hobby that men like. That’s not as easy as it sounds for an introvert, especially amid a pandemic and in a new town. I attend church but find that it keeps men and women’s programming segregated. And I work from home. All these factors go against me.

I’ve tried hiring a matchmaker. After four dates of meeting strange men, I gave up. She was having no more luck than I was.

Just today, I threatened to block someone who was flooding my inbox with flowery notes. There was nothing authentic about his communications. No updates about work, details about his personal life, or sharing how he spends his evenings. Just romantic nonsense. Yep, another scammer hoping to prey on a vulnerable heart.

What bothers me the most about this situation is how real guys react when I request they verify their identity. Most have gotten upset and question my need for proof. Isn’t the same thing happening on their side? And why is my need for verification bothersome? Shouldn’t we be open to helping one another so that we all come out as winners?

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Psychologist, Kerry Kerr McAvoy, Ph.D. writes about dating, healthy relationships, narcissism, and various other mental health-related issues. She is a mom to three grown sons. Loves to swim, snorkel, and read, and enjoys traveling. She lived in the Caribbean for two years. For her monthly letter http://bit.ly/3bCXEnc or to listen to her podcast https://bit.ly/3qiklRC

Austin, TX
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