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Catfishing Scams

If you have been online, it is possible that a person has attempted to “catfish” you. However, you may not have been able to adequately understand it because you were not looking for the telltale signs. It is a type of an online scam, like phishing, meant to take advantage of the insecurities and loneliness of the targets. So, what is catfishing exactly? Furthermore, if you do fall to a catfishing scheme, how can you recover? Better yet, how can one protect against catfishing attempts?

What is Catfishing?

Catfishing is typically done through email or online dating websites. However, they are not exclusive methods. It can also happen on Facebook, Twitter, or other forums that allow people to interact. It involves a person promising companionship or intimate relations, and later on makes demands.  It may involve requesting photographs, confidential information, credit card information, or money. This is akin to the old “Nigerian Prince” scheme where an individual would ask for a certain amount of funds to secure funds that would later be sent to the victim. Ultimately, presuming that the culprit succeeds, then he/she takes and uses personal information to conduct financial crimes.

What Is the Applicable Law?

In general, finding the culprits is not easy like most other online scams. For this reason, there have been minimal legal cases regarding catfishing.  In 2013, there was a high-profile case with Manti Te’o, the famous football player, who fell victim to this scam.  Although, there has been legislation in Oklahoma, which provides for actual and punitive damages.  In addition, a catfishing victim may have certain legal claims (e.g., fraud, identity theft, invasion of privacy, infliction of emotional distress, misappropriation of name or likeness, copyright violation) against the culprit.

Preventive Measures

It is usually better to take preventive measures. In general, the rules of safe computing apply with the reminder that if you publish anything online, you may lose control over it.

First, make sure you know the email sender’s identity (i.e., don’t assume that everyone who contacts you, actually knows you). Second, do not accept unsolicited emails or attachments. Third, try to keep your social media contacts limited only to people you have met in person, or with identities that have been verified by alternative methods. Fourth, in the case of online dating, where catfishing is prominent, do not send money with the promise of meeting later. Fifth, stay away if the individual attempts to relocate you to another website that needs credit card verification. Sixth, there is the option of a “reverse image search.” For now, Google and TinEye provide this service without a charge. It allows you to search for the same or similar images to the one you were provided by someone else. However, the technology may not be reliable.  As such, even if the reverse image search fails to find a match, it is not necessarily a sign that the person is genuine. Instead, ask for more photographs that include a current date or recent newspaper.

The other alternative is looking at your image host’s built-in statistics.  For example, some image hosting websites (e.g., Picasa, Photobucket, Flickr) provide statistics that show when someone links to your images.  Also, YouTube and Vimeo allow you to check their analytic tools to find which website has embedded your video.

It is difficult to prevent your name, image, or likeness from being used by unauthorized persons since the original photographed person probably won’t receive a notice about the unauthorized activity. Instead, you should try to minimize your digital footprint, which can be done by: (1) reducing the number of social media accounts; (2) reducing the number of online photographs or videos; and/or (3) setting the highest privacy settings on all websites.

Obviously, this is more difficult for those who need an intense social media presence (e.g., public figures, influencers). So, it is best to focus on verified accounts. For example, Twitter and Facebook allow identity verification.  Facebook can allow you to have a public page to interact with others.  This separation and verification can help as an alternative way of verification. In addition, watermarking photographs is good practice.

Reactive Measures

Now, reactive measures apply when the online scam has been accomplished.  So, what can we do to protect ourselves after the incident? Well, contacting law enforcement agencies is one step.  The other step is to contact the right experts (e.g., attorneys) who can investigate, prosecute, and obtain monetary damages for clients.

At our law firm, we assist clients with legal issues related to internet, technology, and intellectual properties.  You may contact us to set up an initial consultation.