5 ways to avoid getting ‘catfished’ this Valentine’s Day

Share the holiday with someone you love, not a hacker seeking your personal data

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Did you hear about the guy from Buck­snort, Ten­nessee, who sent a cat­fish­er his life sav­ings after a steamy back-and-forth on a pop­u­lar dat­ing app? The amount lost: $4,395.45, which was the sup­posed cost of air­fare and visa for the victim’s true love to get from Kiev, Ukraine.

If you think you did hear about it, you’re mis­tak­en, because I made it up. The rea­son I did that: Too many cat­fish­ing scams go unre­port­ed. As a result, aware­ness does not match the threat.

Adam Levin, chairman and co-founder of Credit.com and CyberScout (formerly IDT911)
Adam Levin, chair­man and co-founder of Credit.com and Cyber­Scout (for­mer­ly IDT911)

Not that long ago, online dat­ing was viewed as a sad place where des­per­ate peo­ple went to con­nect with oth­er sad, des­per­ate peo­ple. That is no longer the case. Any stig­ma attached to online dat­ing is a thing of the past, with the Pew Research Cen­ter report­ing that more than 15 per­cent of U.S. adults have used online dat­ing sites or dat­ing apps. A major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans now say it’s a good way to meet peo­ple. That said, the shame of appear­ing des­per­ate remains, and that’s why cat­fish­ers often get away with their crimes.

It is not uncom­mon for mil­i­tary per­son­nel to be tar­get­ed. A recent case involved mem­bers of Hamas cre­at­ing fake Face­book pro­files and lur­ing Israeli sol­diers with them. The goal there was much more seri­ous than mere rob­bery: They were send­ing video chat links that con­tained a Tro­jan horse virus that extract­ed con­tacts, loca­tions, apps, pic­ture, and any files, and gave the hack­ers access to the cam­era and micro­phone on the victim’s computer.

How to avoid cat­fish­ing scams

If you think you’re not sus­cep­ti­ble, think again. You are. That’s the rule of the jun­gle. Those who nev­er trust and always ver­i­fy are the safest—though admit­ted­ly it might put a cramp in your online dat­ing life.

Here are five tips for avoid­ing cat­fish­ers this Valentine’s Day from my book, Swiped: How to Pro­tect Your­self in a World Full of Scam­mers, Phish­ers and Iden­ti­ty Thieves.

  1. Beware of roman­tic inter­est from some­one who says they can’t meet. He’s real­ly Amer­i­can, but lives abroad right now. Her phone got shut off. His web­cam won’t work. Scam­mers always have a hun­dred arrows in their cupid’s quiver of rea­sons why you can’t meet them in per­son, talk on the phone, or even see them on a web­cam, and they’re almost all dis­guis­ing the fact that they’re using anoth­er person’s pic­ture and a made-up iden­ti­ty to woo you. Before you let your­self get sucked into a whirl­wind romance, make sure the per­son you think you’re falling for is more than just a few ghost­writ­ten love let­ters and a model’s picture.
  2. Be sus­pi­cious of some­one who always has emer­gen­cies. Once a cat­fish­er thinks she or he has hooked a live one, they’ll test their mark to see how far they can push the trust they’ve worked hard to build. But while hav­ing emer­gen­cies is a fact of life, involv­ing peo­ple who don’t real­ly know you isn’t—and ask­ing for mon­ey to resolve them is real­ly bad form.
  3. Nev­er turn over per­son­al infor­ma­tion or pic­tures you wouldn’t want wide­ly avail­able. Maybe your new squeeze-muf­fin will sud­den­ly ask for a cred­it card num­ber to buy a plane tick­et, inquire about where your bank is locat­ed, or request some­thing like your Social Secu­ri­ty or pass­port num­ber. Maybe they’ll ask for pic­tures of you in com­pro­mis­ing sit­u­a­tions, or to engage in some racy video chats. While giv­ing out your per­son­al infor­ma­tion is enough of an iden­ti­ty gam­ble, don’t ignore the increased risk of hav­ing your per­son­al pic­tures or screen grabs used against you as blackmail.
  4. Don’t give some­one mon­ey or help him or her access mon­ey. Alarm bells should start going off the moment any poten­tial roman­tic part­ner asks you for even a smidge of finan­cial assis­tance. His or her first request might be small, but most cat­fish­ers quick­ly accel­er­ate their requests for mon­ey. If you refuse to help, they might ask you to deposit a check or accept a wire trans­fer from a friend and pass the mon­ey along, but the mon­ey you’re sup­posed to get nev­er real­ly arrives or the check bounces, leav­ing you hold­ing the bag.
  5. Nev­er click strange links or down­load files you receive. Even the most heart­felt-seem­ing e-card can mask some­thing more dan­ger­ous than an online-only romance: Weird links to unfa­mil­iar sites or files you’re asked to down­load can con­tain mal­ware or virus­es that do more than just spam your com­put­er with ads. You could end up with a key­stroke log­ger on your sys­tem, which would allow the sender to see pass­words to every­thing (includ­ing your check­ing account), or a virus that turns your com­put­er into a bot­net to launch attacks against oth­er sites. If you don’t real­ly know the per­son, don’t trust the file (and, some­times, even if you do know the per­son, don’t trust the file).

If you do wind up giv­ing your per­son­al infor­ma­tion to a scam­mer, be sure to mon­i­tor your cred­it for signs of iden­ti­ty theft. You can do so by view­ing your free cred­it report snap­shot, updat­ed every 14 days, on Credit.com.

Remem­ber, Valentine’s Day is a time to cel­e­brate love. It’s a day to share your heart and your good for­tune with those you love, not your per­son­al­ly iden­ti­fi­able infor­ma­tion and your mon­ey with a hack­er sit­ting on a mat­tress in a dark basement.

Full dis­clo­sure: Cyber­Scout spon­sors Third­Cer­tain­ty. This sto­ry orig­i­nat­ed as an Op/Ed con­tri­bu­tion to Credit.com and does not nec­es­sar­i­ly rep­re­sent the views of the com­pa­ny or its partners.

More on iden­ti­ty theft:
Iden­ti­ty Theft: What You Need to Know
3 Dumb Things You Can Do With Email
How Can You Tell If Your Iden­ti­ty Has Been Stolen?