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Don’t become catfish prey

| March 18, 2021 1:00 AM

Here’s a side effect few would have predicted of the C-word we’re all so sick of: Romance scams.

A report released this month by Social Catfish shows online romance scammers stole a record $304 million from a record 32,792 American victims in 2020.

“Catfish” isn’t just popular prey for southern fishermen. It’s also slang for someone who pretends online to be someone else (because them catfish is wily creatures).

When a human catfish uses loneliness and the instinctive need for love as bait, you just wish you could toss ‘em in that sizzling frying pan while they’re still squirming. The turds.

While it’s obvious Americans increasingly rely on the internet to pick up everything from batteries to babes, the coronavirus cuts in our social lives took it to ginormous proportion. In dollars, romance scams increased by an unprecedented 51 percent in 2020.

SocialCatfish.com’s report, “Record Romance Scams Break $300 Million in 2020” analyzed the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinel Network data released last month. They blamed three factors: Loneliness and isolation during COVID-19, a surge in dating app usage last year (obviously related), and — here’s the kick in the pants — the perfect built-in excuse from scammers to avoid a face-to-face meeting.

Key findings include:

· The $304 million lost in romance scams in 2020 is 51 percent higher than 2019 ($201 million), and 305 percent higher than in 2016 ($75 million).

· Total victims reported to the FTC in 2020 numbered 32,792 — a 30 percent increase from 2019, and 191 percent more than 2016’s 11,235 cases.

· Global dating app revenue eclipsed $3 billion in 2020, the highest ever.

According to FTC data, scammer tactics often include international elements. Many say they’re living or traveling outside the U.S., working on an oil rig, in the military, or volunteering with a humanitarian organization.

If not right away, in time they’ll share a sob story and say they need a loan for a plane ticket, customs or other fees to retrieve or send you something, help with debts, a way out of foreign prison, or wilder stories. They may not ask directly for cash, suggesting reloadable cards or online gift cards.

All while flirting, flattering, expressing love.

Tips to prevent being romance scammed may seem obvious, but remember, the most successful scammers are really, really good at this. They “seem nice” and the best don’t ask for anything right away. They can finagle bits out of you easily pieced together later. They know how to smooth-talk, flatter, seize on more vulnerable emotions.

The best wait until you really feel “close” before the ask. That’s when it’s most important to remember “don’ts”:

· Don’t give money to someone to you’ve never met in person. Video chat is a start, but probably not enough to justify trust.

· Don’t give personal information or money to someone you are talking to online (and watch out for those excuses and indirect ways of getting it, often starting small, seemingly about something else).

· Don’t trust someone who seems to move the relationship too fast.

· If they say they’re overseas, it’s a huge red flag — used as a financial or technological excuse not to meet or video chat (whether or not it’s true, best not ignore a flashing neon sign).

· Don’t trust someone who contacted you out of the blue or using a loose connection on social media.

Report scammers to the FTC and FBI. Read the FTC’s advice on romance scams at Bit.ly/3rDYGEt. The Social Catfish report and scam stories are at Bit.ly/30xJCfI.

The genuine article is undemanding and worth waiting for.


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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email Sholeh@cdapress.com.