LEE COUNTY, Fla. — Catfishing...
The phenomenon is more common than you would think. It’s an attempt from a lonely person to gain something from you that they are lacking in their own life and typically tied to a romantic interest.
It’s defined on Merriam Webster as a person who sets up a false personal profile on a social networking site or fraudulent or deceptive purposes— aka a scam.
The term became known nationally thanks to the popular MTV show by the same name. The host meets viewers who believe they are in a happy relationship with a partner they met online, but over the course of the episodes the person's true identity is unveiled.
Love through the computer screen is extremely common. Pew Research Center says that 30 percent of Americans have attempted digital dating - which is how we meet Rebecca.
“I had gone onto a legitimate dating site, OKCupid, I decided, well I'll give online dating a shot. A friend of mine was giving it a shot so I though, oh, I'll do it with her sort of be her wing girl.”
Recently divorced, she decided she was ready for a real connection, so put herself out there.
“I thought I was being smart in saying this is the package I come in. These are the things I will put up with in a relationship. These are the things I won't put up with in a relationship, that I'm looking for a long- term thing not a hookup.”
And her wish came true!
“Then I met Matthew, and Matthew was a single father a 5-year-old son.”
“And we just really hit it off! He was really charismatic; we had a lot of the same interests. I happen to love men with accents, he was from Australia and we just really connected.”
The two would text, email, and talk on the phone for hours on end, never growing tired.
But perfect bliss hit a road block. Matthew called her with a problem. He had taken his son with him oversees for his job as an oil magistrate, and his bank card stopped working, leaving him and his son stranded.
“He was basically stuck and had this child with him in tow! I'm human I have a big heart I couldn't leave a child in a bad situation.”
So she started sending money. A few hundred dollars at first eventually turning into thousands.
She believed she was helping keep them afloat, all with the promise that as soon as his nightmare was over he would pay her back and come home so they could meet in person and be together.
There were the promises, “Oh, when I get back, I'll pay you back all the money it's not going to be an issue. You know I just need to finish what I'm doing here because I can't be in breach of contract because if I'm in breach of contract I'm going to lose my company.”
But it never ended. Months went by funding Matthew with so much money she was in financial ruin.
I was in such distress and I voiced this to him and I said, “Look, I’m in a bad way here.”
I'm being sued by Discover card, I'm about to be evicted from my apartment and be homeless. Im not in a very good place right now.”
And finally - the facade broke ...
“I think he, realizing that there was no money left to get out of me when I told him I’m very seriously thinking suicide is my only option.”
And he said to me, and I will never forget the indifference in his voice when he said it, "Well you have to do what you have to do."
Broken and hopeless, the relationship was over.
“You know Matthew didn't exist. What it is is actually a group of people working behind the scenes. They use those endearments like my darling, my queen, they don't often use your name because they are working so many people at the same time.”
Rebecca tried reaching out to police but was told there wasn’t anything they could do.
The way Rebecca described her experience, the ease of how her catfisher was able to scam her out of thousands of dollars, led me to do some investigating. I had to find out how this is legal?
“If I give you money willingly it’s not against the law. Unless you are committing fraud in some way or identity theft it's a civil issue and you have to take me to court.”
David McClellan runs Social Catfish, a website designed to track down the person behind the social media or dating profile.
It's a real problem here in Florida. A recent report from the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center says that the state has over 1,300 scam complaints - the second highest in the country.
While most scams go un-reported, the victims still exist.
“The biggest victims tend to be people in their 40s, 50s, 60s, that have never really dated online.”
But McClellan says to protect yourself look out for these red flags:
“Anytime anybody asks you for money, they want to send you money or ask you for money that's always a red flag especially if you haven't met up. They make all sorts of excuses to not meet up or they're overseas and all these sorts of events start happening they got into an accident, they're stuck at the border, the military won't send them over, those are huge red flags.”
So, it's always better to proceed with caution. Don’t accept people on Facebook or Twitter who you don’t know in real life. And, if you're on a dating site, always try to meet in person before establishing a relationship.