A Queensland woman is exposing the sneaky tactics being used to rip Aussies off to the tune of $40.5 million a year.
Susannah Birch has been talking to a scammer called Jeffrey for more than six months over Facebook Messenger.
“You are the most perfect thing that exists. You are enough. You are one of the strongest people I know. You look great today. You have the best smile. Your vision of life is incredible,” Jeffrey says in one message.
But, after showering her with compliments, the conversation turns to money.
“My account has been blocked and I don’t have access to my account here in Cambodia. I have to book my flight from Cambodia to California, the flight costs $10,000. Please my friend I need your help…,” Jeffrey writes in one message.
Susannah deliberately talks to people like Jeffrey. They’re known as catfish - people who set up fake online identities to try to trick, and often defraud, people. Susannah then posts the conversations on her Facebook page.
“For me, I partially want to keep them busy because, if they are talking to me, they’re not talking to someone else they could be scamming. I also like to learn about what their process is so I can share it with other people,” Susannah told Yahoo Finance.
“If you are savvy enough not to believe a catfish, you end up blocking them or ignoring them. But not many people, other than those who are vulnerable to them, actually share the conversations.
“There’s a lot of shame around being catfished and if someone rips you off $10,000, you’re not going to tell the world.”
Spotting the red flags
There were 3,698 reports of romance scams made to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Scamwatch last year, with Aussies losing more than $40.5 million.
Close to half of these reports involved scammers with fake profiles who contacted their victims via mobile apps and social-networking platforms.
While catfish had different motivations, Susannah said she’d learnt there were some common red flags to look out for.
“A big one is anything that appeals to you emotionally. For instance, the other day a catfish messaged me [on Facebook] and, within five messages, he asked me if I was mad at him. So, immediately he was trying to make me feel guilty and blaming me,” Susannah said.
“They’re really good at manipulating your emotions and they make you feel guilty so you don’t see their flaws and how they’re trying to trick you.”
Catfish will often ask you simple questions that they should already know about you from your profile, or forget key details about your lift.
“This is often due to the fact they are talking to multiple victims at a time, and are only interested in your money, not your history,” Susannah said.
It can also be a warning sign if you can’t find any information online about the person.
“Everyone on the internet has a digital footprint. If you dig deep enough, you can find almost anyone … If you can't find information about a person, there’s a very good chance it is not a real person,” she said.
Susannah also recommended people do a reverse image search of the person to see if their photos were legitimate.
Susannah’s catfishing experience
Susannah's interest in catfishing comes from her own personal experience. When she was 15, she met a 17-year-old boy called Richard in a teen chat room.
The pair began an online romantic relationship that lasted three years, exchanging photos, talking on the phone and even picking out names for their future kids. After they broke up, they remained friends for another nine years.
It wasn’t until 2014 - 12 years after they had first met - that Susannah discovered Richard was actually a man in his 60s who had been using photos of his own son to catfish her.
“I saw the TV show Catfish and, from there, I Googled how to find out if someone was a catfish because I always had suspicions that something wasn’t right,” Susannah said.
“I always suspected he was lying to me about something. Maybe he didn’t go to uni, or maybe he was still living with his parents, or he is on the dole, and he is embarrassed about it.”
Susannah ended up entering his details into Social Catfish, a US-based site that finds catfish's real identities for a fee. Her suspicions were confirmed.
“After I found out, I confronted him and he admitted to everything,” Susannah said.