DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Long time reader, first time submitting a question,
I get down to brass tacks. Last weekend I went on a lunch date that turned out to a be a catfish scam. I had met someone online, and we chatted for a bit. It looked like we had some mutual friends, so I figured I could trust them. The day before the date, they tell me that they need some money for gas. Foolishly I sent it to them. The day of the lunch date, they message me and tell me that their car has broken down and are taking a Lyft to the café but need money for the ride. This got my suspicious. I told them I couldn’t do it. They got very argumentative with me. They refused to call or FaceTime with me. When I finally talked to them… it was very clear that it was a scam.
I’d like to say this was the first and only time this has happened… sadly I can’t. I’ve been taken in before. If not for money, for laughs.
It’s said that if you find yourself in the same mess over and over, then the common factor is you.
What am I doing wrong? Why is online dating mostly bots and scams for me?
To give you some background, I’m older, late 40’s, single, never married. I haven’t dated much. I have tried meeting people via friends, classes, and et al and I haven’t had much luck.
I wish I could break out of this cycle.
Any advise would be appreciated.
– One Scam Too Many
DEAR ONE SCAM TOO MANY: I’m sorry you’ve run into these scams, OSTM. It’s an unfortunate truth that, where there is a userbase, there will be scammers. This is true of Twitter and Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp and, of course, dating apps. Scammers, con artists and bots will try to convince you that they’re someone (or something) they’re not by playing on particular social mores or trying to get a response by seeming to address a particular need or emotion. Folks will, for example, try to leverage fear by claiming to be an authority and demanding a response from you – the recent “we are locking your account because of Terms of Service” DMs going around Twitter is an example of this. So too are the scam calls that claim to be the IRS leting you know that you’re in arrears and a warrant’s been issued for your arrest. Others may try to play to your greed or – in the case of dating apps – your lust, loneliness or just general desire to find a date.
Now, the first thing that you, specifically, need to do is forgive yourself for having gotten fooled. This happens to the best of us; there’re celebrities and star athletes who’ve been catfished and scammed by randos. It’s the most human thing in the world to want to believe and trust people and to want to help folks out, especially people you feel like you know. Being horrifically cynical and untrusting may keep you from the odd occasion when someone does try to trick you… but this will mostly just serve to make you unpleasant to be around and leave you lonelier than you are now. So, not the best option, if you ask me.
However, that doesn’t mean being naive either.
This is why the second thing you need to do is to take a deeper look at things. You’re correct that yes, if you find yourself having the same experiences, it’s worth examining what those experiences all have in common. And, yes, sometimes the biggest thing they all have in common is you. However, that’s not where the inquiry ends, because it’s not about blaming yourself, it’s about figuring out why you keep being at the center of these occurrences. So, rather than yelling ‘stupid, stupid, stupid’ and castigating yourself for basically being a good and trusting person, you want to look a little more deeply at what went down. What lead you to trust these people (or bots)? Did anything set off your Spidey-Sense and if it did, why did you choose to ignore it? Are there particular things that you seem to be especially vulnerable to that these folks have taken advantage of?
It’s important that you look specifically at the ones that fooled you – even if you figured it out before any damage was done – rather than the times that you saw the scam from a mile away. The ones you catch aren’t the ones that you have to worry about; that’s just survivorship bias in action. The ones that you fell for are the ones that tell you what you need to know. The more you can zero in on these, the more you can figure out where your vulnerabilities are and either patch them or compensate for them.
While you’re looking for the weak points in your metaphorical armor, let’s talk about some early warning signs and ways that you can make it less likely to get tricked again. And I say “less likely” because there’s no fool-proof or perfect way to protect yourself; even the most experienced folks can get fooled. Hell, I came about yay close to getting tricked because a casual friend’s account got hacked; I realized what was likely going on at the last moment and pulled back with a few questions that made it clear I wasn’t talking to my friend, but it was a very near thing.
First things first: beware the people that are too good to be true. While I’m a firm believer that there are no such things as leagues, you do want to be skeptical when someone who seems to be your ideal wants to chat with you, especially when they’re not someone you normally interact with. When that lingerie model/Instagram influencer/Twitch streamer seems to be REALLY intent on dating you, someone who doesn’t roll in the same circles as them… well, that’s a good time to be suspicious. It’s not always fake – Daredevil’s Deborah Anne Wohl met her husband on Match after she’d been starring in True Blood – but if someone’s accomplishments seem to vastly outstrip yours… well, there’s a good reason to want some confirmation that they’re who they say they are.
(Incidentally, a lot of scammers know better than to fake obvious celebrities. They’re much more likely to take people who are attractive – especially professionally attractive – but somewhat out of the mainstream. A number of porn actresses and OnlyFans models have long complained about people using their pictures for dating app scams.)
The same as when their pictures are just too good and there’re few true candids or pics with the sorts of flaws we expect to see in random snaps – the lighting’s not great, things may be a bit out of focus or framed awkwardly, they’re not perfectly made up with their hair just so, etc. To be sure, it’s not that hard to raid someone’s Instagram or public-facing profiles for their candid pictures or scenes from their day to day lives, but if everything looks like it could be in a magazine spread or is just too professional looking, then odds are good you’re not dealing with an actual person.
This is where reverse-image search is your friend. Google allows you to post pics in the image search bar and Chrome has “Check Google for this Image” as an option when you right-click. There are other apps that will help you figure out where pics may have come from as well, but Google should definitely be your first stop. It may not catch things like AI generated portraits from “This Person Does Not Exist”, but it goes a long way towards confirming who you are or aren’t talking to. You may also want to see about trading casual selfies; these are harder to fake and can catch someone out. These can be fun ways to flirt in general, but even a “hey, here’s my day so far…” with a quick pic of you at work or making a face while getting your Starbucks in the morning generally prompts a response. If they seem oddly reticent to share their casual pics or selfies, then beware.
Google will also help you find more about them. It’s the rare person these days who doesn’t have some sort of digital presence, even if it’s just a Linkedin account they made in 2015 and never updated since. A number of dating apps, like OKCupid and Tinder, allow people to connect their Instagram or Spotify accounts; checking these can be helpful, especially if you’re trying to see if their stories add up. If they’re claiming to work in your city but their latest IG stories has them in, I dunno, Palm Springs, then you know you’re talking to a fake. Now, a lot of people know that you’re likely to Google them and may well be vague about what they do or give little information. This doesn’t mean that they’re fake; it’s a sensible thing to not give a lot of your personal details to a stranger. But if they’re vague or evasive with the details in their lives but pump you for information from yours? That’s a red flag.
And if, as in your most recent case, you see that you seem to have mutual friends in common, it can be helpful to ask your friends about them. Just make sure that you’re doing so over a different app. If it links to their Facebook account, maybe text them directly or message them on a different social network.
Speaking of texting, pay attention to how the conversation flows. Are they actually responding to what you’re saying, or are they giving responses that are actually kinda generic and doing a lot of changing the subject or asking questions but not relating to your answers? You may want to do a bot check by asking something wildly off topic or nonsensical. Did they see the trailer for Hocus Pocus 2 and are they excited for the sequel? What are their thoughts on Russia losing ground in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine? Do they have a favorite fish? Most bots aren’t going to be sophisticated enough to handle these sorts of replies, and very few scammers are going to take over to try to reel you in.
Another sign to be wary is when someone seems to have a lot of drama in their lives, especially before you meet them. Many of the telltale signs of a catfish involve stories of woe and catastrophe, which then either explain why they can’t answer the phone, meet you for your date or FaceTime you, or else they precede a request for money. Now, the request may not always be framed as a direct request… but if they start moaning about how cash strapped they are and hint that fixing this may make it more likely for them to actually show up, then you’re probably getting scammed. If they hint at needing money, be sympathetic but somehow just keep failing to get the hint. If they ask for money straight up, tell ’em you have a policy of never lending money to friends, it always goes badly. If they get pissy that a stranger from a dating app isn’t willing to throw them a few bucks (or a lotta bucks) for gas or a Lyft… well, either they’re a scammer or someone you probably shouldn’t date in the first place.
You also should beware if someone seems to be making grand declarations or showing far more interest than is warranted, especially before you’ve even met up in person. And hopefully it goes without saying that you don’t want to trade spicy pics with someone without having a good idea of who they are or having met them in person. Certainly not if those are pics you wouldn’t be ok being seen by the general public. While I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a purely sexting relationship, even with someone you never meet in person, there are folks out there who just look to scam pics from folks. Hell, there was a famous case before FOSTA/SESTA closed down Craigslist personals where people would look for kinksters posting ads in order to get pics so they could out or laugh at them… despite the fact that the kinksters were actually doing everything right – confirming who they were for the safety and security of someone who might want to do a scene with them.
And as a general rule, I’m a big believer that the whole point of meeting someone on the apps is to get off the apps as soon as possible. Ideally, this would mean meeting up for a due-diligence date – fifteen minutes or so for coffee or ice cream or something during the day, so you can verify that you both are who you say you are and check that you have as much chemistry in person as you do in text. This way, the worst that happens is that you realize you two aren’t a good match and you’re only out a few minutes and a couple bucks for coffee. But even if someone isn’t necessarily ready or willing to meet in person – again, this is entirely reasonable, especially for women – moving from Tinder to, say, FaceTime or Skype helps verify that you are talking to who they say they are. If they keep having “reasons” why they can’t (or won’t) video chat? Then you tell them hey, so sorry, met someone else, best of luck in your search.
Now it’s important to note that none of these are going to be definitive proof that someone is or isn’t a bot or a catfish. There’re plenty of very real people who might give “FAKE!” signals despite being the real deal. And while there are bots, fakes and flakes on every dating app out there – the love con has existed for as long as romantic love has – it’s important not to develop a callus on your soul over this. There’re far more real people, looking for folks like you, than there are fakers and con artists looking to take advantage. The key is to not let your hope of finding love outweigh your common sense. An attitude of “trust… but verify” can help weed out the grifters and make sure you’re meeting actual people who actually want what you have to offer.
And hey, like I always say: dating apps should be a supplement to how you meet folks, not a replacement. Going out and about and socializing in the flesh is still the best way to meet folks. And hey, as a bonus? The more you improve your in-person social skills, the better you do on the apps, too.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com