About 10 years ago my husband of 27 years and I were just settling onto the couch for a night of watching TV when I checked my phone to see if I needed to respond to any urgent requests. One message struck me as curious, so I opened it.
Much to my surprise it was from a woman who said she was in love with me, or rather in love with the person who had been claiming to be me, sending her photographs I had posted over the years, including those with my nephews and nieces (who were minors at the time). “Would you be willing to talk to me?” she asked. She wanted to process what had happened to her and felt a connection to me since all of the pictures of me stolen from my social media accounts. I explained that I was a therapist, a happily married gay man, and would be willing to speak with her in the context of a consultation. Beyond that, I told her, she should report this scam to Facebook.
I was flabbergasted and furious that this had happened to her, to me, and to my nephews and niece—all of whom are innocent parties to these perpetrators.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t only the first time this happened. Since then I have been the unwitting victim of more than 20 of these cons and have diligently reported them to Facebook and Instagram only to be told on many that such activity did not violate their guidelines! My response has been, and remains, “What possible company guidelines would allow someone to exploit a person’s identity, even use photos of someone’s minor relatives in order to con someone out of their money?”
Because I received no real help from either Facebook or Instagram, I finally looked into federal laws and eventually was able to force the platforms to take the fake profiles down. But it didn’t end the problem. Year after year I learn that someone has used my images as well as my niece and nephews in fake profiles to lure someone into a romance scam. It’s happened so often that I have become numb to it, and just feel sorry for the women. Surprisingly, when they discover that I’m not the person they thought I was, some ask if we can still be friends. They follow me on my real social media accounts so they can see for certain that I’m a happily married gay man with no children.
Back in 2010, producer Marc Smerling released a fairly successful quasi-documentary movie named Catfish about a young man who is duped by a woman’s fake profile on Facebook. She claims to be many things, including a struggling artist hoping for a patron. It’s a 21st-century take on con games that have been around forever, exploiting vulnerable people—especially those hoping for romance—for money. Today’s “catfishing” refers to people who claim to be someone whose Facebook or Instagram identity they have stolen, and then use that identity to romance online victims, eventually asking them to send money.
For the first time that I had ever seen, the media focused not just on the victim but on the perpetrator as well in these romance scams. Catfish eventually evolved into an MTV series in which the hosts of the show, Nev Schulman and Max Joseph, reached out to men and women who had been scammed and lied to by perpetrators using other’s photographs. It was not hard to feel sympathy for these victims, but when the show was able to locate the person doing the exploiting, instead of hating the very perpetrator of the scam like you expected you would, you might find yourself empathizing with them. It often turned out that they were marginalized lonely folks, themselves the victims of much rejection from others they tried to date.
Rather than media focusing primarily on the victims, it is crucial that the perpetrators be understood and stopped. Regardless of their reasons, they are taking advantage of innocent people, both adults and children, and need to be held accountable for what they are doing.
Despite admitting I can feel some sympathy for these scammers, I am angry that their crimes are not considered worthy of more investigation and punishment. I am also angry with Facebook and other social media giants that don’t take identity theft more seriously or take stronger steps to identify and stop it. We now know of the literally thousands of fake social media accounts that have been created and used by our nation’s enemies to disrupt our elections and our society, sowing fake stories to create chaos and sow polarization here. Is there nothing more to be done about it?
It is not okay to steal someone’s image, especially images of their minor children or nieces and nephews. It is not morally or legally justifiable to deceive someone and exploit their loneliness for money or their prejudices to create fear and violence. These exploitations occur across state and national lines. Crimes committed across state lines are the responsibility of the FBI to investigate and prosecute. Perhaps Interpol or other international organizations could do more to end romantic exploitation like this. Perhaps these scams don’t rise to the level of criminality that concerns such law enforcement agencies, I don’t know.
Covid Making Things Worse
Sadly, Covid has added to the plight of the world’s lonely people in the age of social media, and how vulnerable the hope of romance makes them. The longing and isolation they feel to be romanced and cared for blinds them to some obvious things that should have made them suspicious. For instance, one victim recalled being thrilled when she got a photograph of a sparkling engagement ring from her “lover,” and yet she never asked to speak with him directly or ask that he mail her the ring.
And this doesn’t only happen to women: Gay men have also fallen prey to scammers who steal images of young, attractive, and athletically built males and pursue lonely older gay men who are longing for connection. Scammers also pretend to be attractive women preying on older straight men who have lost their wives and female partners and are longing for connection.
Why so many other victims of these scams don’t simply demand to see the person who is romancing them on camera—since virtually anyone today has the ability to communicate live on webcam—I believe speaks loudly to the tendency we have toward fantasy and self-delusion when we long to be loved. Given that when we’re online we are increasingly asked to verify that we’re “not a robot” or to send a texted security code to prove who we are when trying to get into one of our accounts, you would think that these victims would realize that there are a lot of people out there who would like to take advantage of us.
Granted, some women have been smarter once they realized they were exploited. Recently I learned of a woman who had seen a photo of me wearing a t-shirt with a picture of the 1970s-era group, Tony Orlando and Dawn. She asked the person who had sent her the photo, “If you are who you say you are, you’ll know who the singing group is on your t-shirt.” The person didn’t, and she avoided further being scammed.
The need for a stronger response
I am only one person whose images have been exploited this way. I can only imagine how widespread the problem really is. I can only hope that you have not been the victim of such a crime.