YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – An online love affair ended in heartache and financial loss for a woman who thought she was dating a fellow animal lover. Turns out she was the victim in a complex ‘catfishing’ scam that stole details and videos from a local animal activist.
‘Catfishing’ is when someone creates fake profiles on social media sites to trick people into thinking they are somebody else.
“Amber,” not the woman’s real name because she didn’t want to be identified, got online one night thinking it would be fun to just chat with someone, but she ended up the victim of a sophisticated international scam that bilked her out of $2,500.
“I just fell into it. He was very charming, trust me,” Amber said.
Someone by the name of John Tester contacted her on Facebook. They talked about animal rescue. John had lots of photos and videos, even a passport and convinced Amber to send $2,500 to a charity animal project. She thought they were in love.
As Amber went through the dozens of photographs that Tester sent her, she started looking in the background and realized he might be lying. Those details led her to the real profile of Jason Cooke, a local animal activist. It appeared his profile has been stolen.
Amber confronted her online boyfriend. Tester told her he was really a student in Nigeria. He told her he bought Jason Cooke’s profile for $15 and was out to make as much money as he could.
“He fessed up right away. For the first time in two and half months, he called me on video chat and I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Amber said.
The real Jason Cooke works in animal rescue and has a very public profile but now it has been stolen.
“Every photo I’ve ever posted, every video, and essentially pretend that they were me,” Cooke said. “They were really smart about it because they blocked me so I couldn’t see it, and they didn’t use my name.”
How to detect a ‘catfishing’ scam (Courtesy of the Better Business Bureau):
- Pressure to leave the site. The scammer immediately suggests moving the conversation to text message or your personal email. Also, watch out for profiles that message you immediately after being matched, followed or liked, depending on the site.
- Hasty expressions of love. They express instant feelings of love, although they have very little knowledge of you.
- Claims of citizenship. They claim to be from the United States but are actually located in an overseas call center, deployed or on assignment elsewhere.
- Sudden major expenses. Don’t wire money if you’re asked to cover travel costs, medical emergencies, hotel bills, hospital bills for a child or relative or visas and other official documents.
- Change of plans. They plan on visiting but unexpectedly are prevented by a traumatic event or a business deal gone sour. Some may also say they’re out of the country for business or military service.
- Requests for money. They make multiple requests for more money. They may even test you and ask for a little at first and then continue to ask for larger amounts. In some cases, the scammer sends you money and requests you transfer it to another account.
For those in search of friendship, love or supporting a cause online, BBB offers the following tips:
- Never wire money. It is difficult to get money back from people who may be misrepresenting themselves once it has been sent through a wire transfer service.
- Put safety first. Avoid putting too much personal information on your dating site or social media profiles, such as home address, work information or phone number. Also avoid giving personal or financial information to online love interests, as it could be a phishing or identity theft attempt.
- Take the time to research individuals. If you see any red flags in your communication with someone, search his or her name through search engines and on social media sites. Copy and paste portions of your emails into search engines to see if they have been associated with scams.
If you feel you’ve been scammed, don’t be silent. According to the Better Business Bureau, this type of scam is especially insidious because the scammer is manipulating and abusing the victim’s emotions. It plays on the need we all have for love and companionship and many people fall victim every year.
If you’ve been scammed, tell your story to other people. You may prevent someone else from being victimized in the same way. You can report romance scams and any other scams you become aware of to the BBB Scam Tracker at bbb.org/scamtracker. If the scam occurred on an online dating site or some other online forum, report the individual’s user-name to the site moderators, who can take steps to prevent the scammer from targeting anyone else using the same website.