Internet Catfish Scams: Are You A Likely Target?

Although the term “Catfish” may be fairly new to many, it is by no means a new concept.  With the growing television and media coverage of catfish cases (ranging from the college student believing he or she is dating a model, to the financially comfortable widow, who has sent a large percentage of his or her inheritance to their new love, who is “stuck” in another country), victims are coming out of the woodwork.  After finding very few articles on this subject (nothing in the last 5 years), I have decided to do my part in spreading awareness of this concept.


There are two types of internet catfish that I deal with on a regular basis.  The first, I like to refer to as “the good old American catfish”.  [I have no reason for this name, other than the Urban Dictionary, the documentary, Catfish, and Catfish: The TV Show being American based and the most prominent  in originally spreading awareness of this issue.]  These online dupers are generally not out to scam anyone out of money or goods.  They are most often just playing an emotional game.  Some of them are married or in a relationship and simply want to stay anonymous, for that reason.  Others are lonely, with low self-esteem, and are too afraid to let their victims get to know the real person.  Then there are some who enjoy the control of playing with your emotions.  For the most part, although they are not who they say they are, they generally have no desire to hurt you, monetarily or emotionally.  Many of these people can be exposed by the right investigator.  Although being lonely or in an unhappy relationship can be contributing factors to falling victim, there appears to be no narrow profile of a victim of this type of catfish, in my experience.


For the sake of this article, I will be referring to the second type of internet catfish, I tend to have to investigate… The old fashioned “419 scam” artist.  These scammers took their craft to a new level, when they adopted the technique of a catfish, making you feel loved.  And these catfish have only one motive – To get you to send them as much money as possible.  There is a profile of this type of victim, which I will speak about later in this article.


The scene of a typical internet cafe, in Nigeria

The scene of a typical internet cafe, in Nigeria


The “419 scammer” is the type of catfish that you do not want to fall victim to.  To start, they are almost impossible to pinpoint to one person.  These scammers often work in groups, sharing ideas, photos, poems, identities, and even you, the victim.  Even if you are able track down your scammer or scammers, prosecution and/or getting your money back is not a likely scenario.  In fact, anyone causes you to believe that they can retrieve your money are most likely scammers themselves.  But, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t report it.  Hiring a private investigator to gather the evidence you need and/or reporting the crime to the FBI may be beneficial to you and many others, in the future.  Currently, you can file a complaint with the FBI at  I would also strongly recommend documenting such scams with your local law enforcement.


Most of us are familiar with the old “419 scams”, or if we are not familiar with the term, we are most likely familiar with the concept.  If you haven’t ever received an email from a desperate “Prince” or “Barrister”, asking for your help to get them out of a bind and in return you will receive thousands, or even millions of dollars, then you probably have never once checked your email.  Nigeria has been unofficially recognized as one of the main hubs for today’s internet scams.


The name “419 scam” actually comes from the Nigerian criminal code for dealing with fraud.  But the truth is, these scams can originate from anywhere in the world.   Even though only 6% of all internet related crimes originate in Nigeria (61% in the United States), it appears as though a slight majority of the catfish style scams originate in Nigeria, from my personal experience in investigating these cases.  Other countries are on the rise, including Ghana, South Africa, India, and even Mexico.  The bottom line is, your scammer can be coming from anywhere.


It is a common misconception that these scams were born along with the internet, when in fact, they have been documented as early as the 18th and 19th centuries.  Some of these early scams involved scenarios of wealthy individuals being wrongly imprisoned.  The scammer would knock on doors and ask their potential victims for monetary assistance, so that they could bribe the prison guards.  In return, the victims were told they would receive a reward, once the prisoner returned to their wealthy family.  The common theme with these scams is that they appear to play on one’s willingness to help others, as well as their wish to be rich, all at the same time.  The modern day 419 scam became popular in the 1980’s, with the use of fax machines and traditional mail.


But, enough with the history lesson.  I need to get back on track and talk about what makes this article relevant to us, today.  The simple fact is, the success of these scammers is on the rise.  But why are they becoming more successful today, as opposed to years past?  The answer is: internet dating.  These scammers have found their gold mine in your heart.  Playing on your kindness and/or your wish for a better life for yourself was always lucrative to these scammers.  But, playing on your need to be loved has brought them to a whole new level.


In my line of work, I hear it all the time.  “How could they be so stupid?” or “How can anyone be that gullible?”  The answer is, they aren’t stupid, nor are they really gullible, in every other aspect of their lives.  There isn’t a person reading this article who hasn’t done something “stupid”, in the name of love.  A vast majority of my clients have been some of the smartest and most well educated people I’ve had the pleasure of talking to.  But they’ve all had one thing in common.  They’ve all looked past the red flags that were right in front of them… the red flags they were smart enough to notice, but decided to ignore, all because of the way their scammers made them feel. I have found that many others weren’t even aware of these types of scams until it was much too late.  I can only hope that this article reaches as many people as possible, to combat that.


Now, here is the question.  Are you a likely target for these scammers?  If you are in the internet dating world, then the answer is “yes”.  Now the more important question is, are you a likely victim of these scammers?  The answer to that question depends solely on how educated you are with this issue.  A Professor of Political Science at Wright State University and close personal friend of mine, Mary Leal, recently informed me of the current profile of a victim of this type of catfish scam. Professor Leal advised that the victims are “generally adult females, who have been recently widowed or divorced, who may have received a large settlement or inheritance, from the death or divorce.”  Although there are several different ages of men and women who fall victim to this, the above listed profile appears to be the most common.


Professor Mary Leal, Wright State University

Professor Mary Leal, Wright State University

Professor Leal appeared on an episode of Dr. Phil with me, last year, regarding a catfish case I had investigated, for the show.  Professor Leal was able to share a story about her own sting she set up on one of these scammers.  “After learning that a girlfriend of mine fell victim to one of these scammers and lost $18,000, I decided to take matters into my own hands,” said Professor Leal.  After just a short time of creating her own online dating profile, a man by the name of “George” was attempting to seduce her.  It wasn’t long after that that he began asking for money.  “George” was using photos of a race car driver and portraying them as himself, as part of his seduction.  What Professor Leal meant by “taking the matter into her own hands” was, she bought a plane ticket to Nigeria and tracked down “George”, who she found to be a disabled Nigerian man.  The surprising part to Professor Leal was not that “George” wasn’t who he said was, but that he continued to ask her for money, even after he was caught.  It is a testament to the lengths these people will go to, to get your money.


With the internet dating sites becoming increasingly popular and social media rapidly becoming one of the most popular forms of communication, the population of fish in their sea of victims has exploded, over the last ten, or so, years.  Now that you have been made aware of the profile and what makes you a likely target, it is important to know what you can do to protect yourself from these scammers.  The following is a list of the main red flags to look for, to weed out the scammers from your dating profile and/or social media sites.  Now, what we must remember is that most of you are smart enough to notice some of these red flags.  The problem is, so many victims let their hearts cloud their judgment, causing them to look past the red flags.  The romantic, poetic, flow of their writings make it almost impossible for the victim to cease the conversations, even if they notice the following red flags.  My hope is that after you read this, you won’t let your heart cloud your judgment.


  1. If you only take one thing from this article, I want it to be this.  If the person you are starting a relationship online with refuses to and/or makes excuses for not being able to send you a photo, or join you in a web cam session, STAY AWAY.  The simple truth is, almost everyone has a working camera on their cell phone, these days.  Almost everyone has a webcam installed on their computer, these days.  If they do not, then they are most likely not immersed enough in the digital age to create an online dating profile.  Most of you (potential victims) grew up in an age where you were taught to trust the word of another.  Unfortunately, we no longer live in that age.  The internet has made deception far too easy.  Therefore, if you aren’t able to see them at your request, you must assume that the person you are speaking to is not real.


  1. Be sure to watch out for constant travelers.  The scammers will often use constant traveling as their reason for not being able to be with you.  They generally tend to start out by claiming to work some sort of job that sounds really important, such as an engineer, a lawyer, and in so many cases, an Officer in the United States Military.  They are then able to use these professions as the reason for their traveling.


  1. Catastrophic events are very common in the scam world.  The scammer will often hit your sympathy bone by claiming to have a deceased spouse or child, or even mention horrible events or accidents that have occurred in their lives.  They will also use new events, such as being arrested, robbed, or attacked, to begin requesting money from you.  The scammer will need your money to “pay a doctor bill”, “pay for a hotel”, or even “bribe an official”.  The money will often be the help they need to get back to see you.  It is also common for them to request money so that they can put a down payment on a house or car, as part of their “new life with you”.


  1. Several different people in the world speak several different languages, causing several people to have a foreign accent.  Unfortunately for them, having a foreign accent is a big red flag in the American online dating world (especially if they are claiming to be an American).  I have heard from victims on several occasions, “He has an accent, but it doesn’t sound Nigerian.  He says his mother is _______ and his father is _________ and that is why he has the accent.”  Let’s face it, the average American doesn’t really even know what a Nigerian accent sounds like.  And let’s remember, Nigeria isn’t the only country these scams are run out of.  I have seen too many times where the scammer has claimed to be from the United States, but still speaks with a foreign accent and justifies it by claiming his or her parents are from different countries.  Let’s face it people, if you were born and raised in the United States, YOU SHOULD NOT HAVE A FOREIGN ACCENT, regardless of where your family comes from.


The above listed red flags are just a few to scratch the surface.  Unfortunately, these scammers are evolving and finding new ways to deceive you, every day.  Here are a few things you should know, to protect yourself, when moving into the online dating world.


  1. Be mindful of the personal information (ie. Hobbies, employment, etc.) you post about yourself on the dating sites and social media.  This way, you can better detect if a person is attempting to use your likes and dislikes as a way into your heart.


  1. If you are having concerns about someone you are involved in an online relationship with, ask him or her to send you a photo containing their face, along with your name written on his or her hand.  If you request this enough, with no results, it is safe to say the person is deceiving you.


  1. Use the internet to research the things your love interest tells you.  If he or she claims to be in the military and gives you a rank, a military branch, and a base where he or she is stationed, research the points of information.  You must keep in mind that the average foreign scammer has no clue how the United States military is set up.  If you are told that he or she works for a specific company or has a specific occupation, research it.  The internet is full of an almost infinite amount of information and answers.  Although, it should be noted that many scammers are beginning to build websites to make their occupations appear legitimate.  So, check as many sources as possible.  A good resource for checking if an email address has been flagged as a scammer is


  1. Many scammers will send romantic and poetic messages, which sweep you off of your feet.  It is often beneficial to copy the text of the message and paste it into the search bar of a search engine, such as Google.  You may be surprised to find that the words sent to you were taken from someone else’s published work.  You may also find that someone else has already flagged the passage as being sent from a scammer.


In conclusion, if you are in the online dating world, YOU ARE A POTENTIAL AND VERY LIKELY TARGET.  It is how well educated you are in regards to these types of scams that will determine if you are a likely victim, or not.


There is no doubt that the once taboo internet dating is now quite the norm.  But before diving head first into the internet dating world, you should recognize that you are in the scammers’ new arena.  You must know what to look for and how to protect yourself.  The biggest piece of advice I can give is to trust your gut.  There should generally be no reason for someone whom you have never met, in person, to ask you for money.  Be strong by not letting the kind words and romance cause you to look past the red flags you may notice.  Use this knowledge to screen your potential suitors.  You may remain a likely target, but will become a very unlikely victim.



Bradley A. Pfanner, P.I.


Brad Alan Investigations, PI27007



Copyright 2014 Bradley A. Pfanner of Brad Alan Investigations

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