Happy Valentine’s Day …. or is it? For many, the road to romance has always been paved with potential potholes – and the internet adds another dimension of uncertainty. For example: is that person you’ve been messaging really who they say they are? If you’ve never met in person, proceed with caution.

Dating sites struggle to keep their platforms a trustworthy, safe place for people to connect – and tools like Sift Science that prevent content abuse can help. Last year, we did a data analysis across all the dating sites we work with to determine that 10% of all new profiles are flagged as fake (and taken down before they can do harm).

But unfortunately, some fake profiles still find their way online. “Catfishing” is a term for pretending you’re someone you’re not online. Some nefarious catfishers want to scam or extort someone out of money, while others are looking for attention or excitement or even (yes) love. Catfishing scams, also known as romance scams, are successful because they prey on people’s trust and desire for emotional connection.

Catfishing in action

Catfishing first crossed many folks’ radars due to a puzzling situation involving Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o in late 2012. Te’o gained attention and sympathy from the public when he announced that his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, had died of cancer.

However, it soon became apparent that Kekua had never existed. The real story? One of Te’o’s friends – who was in love with him – created a fake Twitter account, used photos from a real woman’s Facebook and Instagram, and began contacting Te’o. Although they never met in person, the “couple” spent years chatting online and on the phone. Te’o insists he had no idea Kekua was made up.

Multiple victims

The catfished individual isn’t the only victim in these types of romance scams. Catfishers will often take profile photos from real social media accounts. Vice documented the story of a woman named Ellie whose pic (along with those of her friends) has been used online across multiple accounts for 10 years. Strangers approach her in the street calling her by different names. Some men said they were in a relationship with her, or were deeply in love with her.

Finally, and bizarrely, the female catfisher got in touch with Ellie and her friends to apologize and try to explain why she was living false identities online:  “I guess I just enjoyed living your lives a bit more than my own.” Still, Ellie said the fake profiles remain active.

Warning signs of catfishing

While catfishing has been definitely been in the headlines (and is even the subject of a popular MTV show), romance scams still claim several victims each year. According to the FBI, individual victims often lose tens of thousands of dollars at a time.

So, how do you stay safe? Watch out for people who:

  • Declare their feelings early and push the relationship forward quickly
  • Have a profile with only a few photos and very few friends
  • Claim to have a job that means they have to travel all the time (often abroad)
  • May claim to be in the military, stationed abroad
  • Always have a last-minute excuse for why they can’t meet
  • Refuses to use a webcam or Skype
  • Tells you about a difficult situation and asks for money


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