Anyone who uses dating agencies should be aware of the risk that a “catfish” poses. However, despite all of the media attention, catfish are constantly successful in their campaigns, and it seems as though everyday there is yet another victim. But why is this persistent campaign so successful ? In order to understand how a catfish scam operates, we first need to look at who they target, and why. Trust is gained as quickly as possible as the risk of being caught out very early in the process is much too high. Catfish campaigns tend to target individuals – particularly those considered vulnerable. But how do they know that these individuals are vulnerable and a healthy target in the first place ? More on that later.

For now, let’s look at how a catfish will apply their skills on unsuspecting victims. By far the most common type of attack is via online dating, and seeing as there appears to be plenty of choice in terms of platforms and users adopting their services, the fruit on the tree is plentiful, and replenished at an alarming rate.

How does a catfish select a target ?

The more experienced catfish will have multiple targets and campaigns running concurrently. Adopting this approach as a “beginner” is actually unwise, as there is too much detail to remember in order to pull off an effective deception without raising suspicion. Can you imagine grooming a target then getting their name wrong, or other key information they may have unwittingly provided ? No. For this exact reason, the novice catfish will target one individual at a time. Whilst this doesn’t sound very enterprising, the experienced catfish, however, will operate multiple campaigns simultaneously. This produces a significantly higher yield, but it also means that the risk of exposure is greater. Based on this, each campaign is carefully tracked and “scripted” – in fact, each campaign has a written story – pretext if you will, that is simply copied and pasted in communications. This provides the assurance that the particular “story” being used does not stray off course, or arouse suspicion unintentionally. Based on official evidence, the origin of where most catfish campaigns originate from is Nigeria. In fact, it’s big business – well over USD 2bn in fact.

Here’s a video courtesy of CNBC that describes some of the techniques I have mentioned above – including the “scripted” mechanism.

The catfish selects their target based on a number of factors – with social skills being top the list. A personality of a wet blanket is seldom effective, so the catfish must create an online persona (usually a Facebook profile) that is credible, and can be reinforced and intertwined with real life events. Such an example of this is a soldier serving in Afghanistan (there are many others, although this is an active campaign which is known to succeed). It would appear that the military lifestyle, the uniform, and the exciting stories are enough to entice a lonely individual looking for friendship and romance. A vital component of the scam is that the occupation of a soldier allows multiple periods where contact can be minimal for various “military” reasons that the catfish informs their target they cannot divulge for official secrecy reasons. This actually provides the perfect cover in order for the scam to progress. Time is required in order to plan the next stages of the campaign if it is to succeed. Another important element to remember is that the catfish needs to be mindful of time zones – you cannot be based in Nigeria and use the same timezone when you are supposedly stationed in Afghanistan, for example.

The catfish would have collected enough intelligence about their target to remain one step ahead at all times. This typically involves research, with most of the required information sadly provided by social media. This includes dates and places of birth, interests, hobbies, and a myriad of other useful data that all adds up to the success of the campaign. The catfish uses this information to form trust with the target, and, coupled with the online persona created previously, the wheels are firmly attached. The con is on, so to speak. Using the data collected earlier, the catfish makes use of a variety of techniques in order to gain confidence and trust, with the social element being of utmost importance. Another key point for the catfish is the ability to engage in discussion, be articulate, and most of all, come across as being intelligent. Spelling is important, as is the ability to use grammar and punctuation correctly. Those of us who are “grammar snobs” can easily spot a deception in the form of a social media message or email owing to the notoriously poor grammar – usually always the result of English not being the primary language in use. Bearing in mind that most initial contact is via instant messaging, online chat, and email, it is important for the catfish to avoid suspicion and early detection – and in essence, remain “under the radar” at all times.

How much effort is involved ?

The amount of effort a catfish will put in generally depends on multiple factors. The sole aim of the perpetrator is financial, and any seasoned criminal will be looking to gain trust quickly, and will always have a story prepared. The point here is that the target needs to be a willing participant – nobody is holding a gun to their head, and they must be convinced of the integrity of their new online beau in order to part with money of their own volition. The previously constructed story needs to be consistent, and plausible if the campaign is to succeed.

Once the target is engaged, the catfish is then in a position to effectively “groom” the individual, and uses the response and personality of the target to gauge when the next part of the plan should be executed. This in itself can be a fine art depending on the target. If they are intelligent, it may take a considerable amount of time and effort to reel them in. Before the catfish makes this investment, they have to be sure it will be worth it. But how ? Again, social media to the rescue. You’d be hard pressed to believe this, but money and the associated social lifestyle it provides and promotes is a key focal point of social networking, and by definition, “engineering”. If the target regularly posts about dining out, drinking, holidays, etc., then this is a clear indicator that they are worth perusing and exploiting, as they clearly have money to spend.

Once the catfish has been able to convince the target of their sincerity, the deception then proceeds to the next level. Using the tried and tested “soldier based in another country, shortly completing his tour of duty, and leaving the army” scam, this provides an ideal mechanism to extort money from the target after they have been convinced that the individual they have been talking to wants to start a business, and needs capital etc in order to get started. Another well-known and successful ruse is to claim that they have a sick child (or children) that need urgent hospital care, and they don’t have the money to finance this.

Another additional means of topping up the “fund” is the additional ruse that the soldier is not a citizen in the target country, and wants to be with his “new partner”. The by now besotted target agrees to pay for air fare, visa costs, and other associated permits in order to make their dream romance a reality – without realising that they are parting with a significant sum that carries absolutely no guarantee that it will be delivered. In fact, this could not be further from the truth. In a cruel twist, the catfish instructs their target to pay the funds into an account setup and accessible by the criminals involved, where it is collected without delay – often by a “mule” (more on this later).

The target is completely unaware this has taken place, and only realises what has happened after their romance never materialises, the person they trusted never arrives, and a gaping hole has appeared in their finances as a result. They are now left with the inevitable emotional and financial damage this scam creates, and they must somehow come to terms with the impact – and the associated consequences. The ultimate twist of fate is that the victim transferred their money of their own free will – it wasn’t stolen from them, and, believe it or not, no crime has been committed based on this fact (it sounds crazy, and it is absolutely fraud – but that’s the law). You will also find yourself hard pressed to convince any bank that you have not acted negligently.

Reducing the risk

So how can you reduce the risk ? Whilst the below list should start with “…never talk to strangers…”, its not that simple. The below points are guidelines, but should be used along with your own judgement.

  • Never engage in discussions of a financial or personal nature with people you do not know. The internet is a dangerous place, and the anonymity it provides only makes this worse.
  • If you join a dating agency, ensure that all requests for contact are fully screened by the agency themselves before being sent on to you. Most agencies now insist on home visits to new clients in order to combat this growing trend.
  • Never agree to setup a new bank account, or transfer cash – this is a smoking gun, and should be avoided at all costs.
  • Never allow the discussions to continue “off platform” – in other words, always use the dating agency’s systems so that any conversations are captured and recorded. This means no texts, no personal messaging systems, and strictly no contact over social media
  • If someone sends you a friend request on Facebook, ask yourself basic questions, such as “do I actually know this person ?” and “why are they contacting me ?”. If you don’t know them, don’t accept.
  • Try to avoid being tempted by emotional flattery. Whilst we all like praise and the feelgood factor it brings, don’t be reeled in by a catfish. This is one of the core weapons in their arsenal, and they will deploy it whenever necessary
  • Remember – relationships have their foundations firmly rooted in trust. This has to be earned and established over the course of time – it’s not something that appears overnight.

Published by Mark Cutting

Mark Cutting is the founder of Inocul8r.net. He is a network, security and infrastructure expert with more than 27 years service in the Information Technology sector. Mark has a significant eye for detail, coupled with an extensive skill set. Having worked in numerous industries including trading, finance, hedge funds, marketing, manufacturing and distribution, he has been exposed to a wide variety of environments and technologies alike.

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