More than half of people who search for love online admit they lie to make themselves more appealing.
That’s according to a Michigan State University study that says people lie about things like their weight or height. But one thing is a white lie online and another is a dangerous deceit.
Many people first heard the term Catfishing when Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o was thrust into the spotlight in January of this year. He said he was the victim of a hoax. Te’o said he fell in love with a woman he met online only to find out it was all an Internet dating hoax. Ronaiah Tuiasosopo had created a fake profile using a picture of an unsuspecting woman and carried it out.
Dr. Aimee Zadak, a psychologist and professor at Nova Southeastern University said: “Catfishing is someone changing their identity, if you will, online, on Facebook, Twitter, on any type of social media.”
James Harris, a Miami-Dade resident, knows why people get caught up in Catfishing. He was featured in the MTV reality show "Catfish" after establishing an online relationship with someone while pretending to be a model called “Ja’mari Van De Kamp.“
“I mean, online you can be who you want to be,” said Harris.
But James is not a model. He’s a bus driver who was convicted of stealing a transit bus in 2008. He served time in jail, and although he later got his convictions overturned, he says he felt creating an online persona would give him a fair chance in the dating scene.
“I always had an alter ego and given my past and what I went through, I wanted to change from James. I wanted to change who I was because I wanted to hide from everything that I went through,” said Harris.
“When you look at the psychological part of Catfishing it goes down to that basic need of being accepted, which we all have,” says Zadak.
Seeking acceptance is one thing but federal investigators say there are a growing number of people who take on fake identities to steal victims' money.
“As soon as it comes to money, that’s where I would end the conversation right there,” said Bladisimir Rojos, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service, who regularly investigates Internet schemes.
Nikki Moustaki unknowingly became the bait for an online dating scam. Her pictures were used by a scam artist to lure unsuspecting men.
“I initially got a Facebook message from a guy in Mexico City saying that someone was using my pictures and my name and all of my information, my persona, on a website to pretend like they’re me and get money out of people,” said Moustaki.
The scam artist had taken her information, what she does for a living, her hobbies and pictures from Facebook and set up a profile on a dating website under the name Nikki Mous. There, he or she established a relationship with at least two men, including an airline pilot from Dubai who prefers not to be identified.
“All the stuff I wrote, regarding my life, regarding my past divorce and the kids and the problems she always had an answer, she always had something nice to say,” said Moustaki.
Officials say those text message, emails, phone calls are part of a grooming stage to gain the victim’s trust. In this case, after a long grooming process Nikki’s impostor asked the pilot for a loan saying he would get it right back, even replicating a bank website to make the pilot believe he had access to the scam artist’s account. It worked. The pilot wired $1,300 and soon after, realized he had been fooled.
“Once you hit send on that money, whether it be a money transfer company or something like that, it’s very, very difficult to get it back, it’s gone pretty much,” said Rojo.
According to the Internet Crime Complaint Center, which is a partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center, in 2011, 5,600 people became victims of romance scams, as the feds call it. Those victims lost $50 million. That’s an average loss of $8,900 per victim—a number that has doubled over the last decade.
As for the pilot, he never got his money back. NBC 6 tried finding the person who actually signed for the cash the day it was wired but we were unable to contact that person. The Better Business Bureau has put out some Catfishing warning signs. They say watch out if the person only communicates through email, instant message and cell phone, is never able to meet you in person, says his or her career involves traveling a lot and has a sudden emergency and needs money.