I was catfished by my 'dream man' – he scammed me out of £126k, I even got out a loan to give him more cash
FROM being fleeced out of life savings to getting duped into sexual relationships, increasing numbers of women are falling victim to scammers online.
So why aren’t law-enforcement agencies taking catfishing seriously?
Jane’s* life fell apart the day her boyfriend of 10 months disappeared.
Ed* was due to take a flight from Germany to the UK, where they were starting a new life together. But he never arrived.
Jane had been catfished – the process by which scammers and liars create fake identities online to hoodwink others.
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Ed had carefully built an online romance with vulnerable widow Jane, 50, rinsed her for over £100,000, and then disappeared.
“I got so low I started to have suicidal thoughts,” she tells Fabulous. “I didn’t want to be here any more.”
After first gaining prominence on the 2010 movie Catfish and subsequent MTV reality series of the same name, catfishing is now a digital-age epidemic.
Earlier this year, Netflix’s The Tinder Swindler documented one of the world’s most extreme catfish cases, while Tortoise Media’s podcast Sweet Bobby, which tells the story of Londoner Kirat Assi – who was manipulated into an online friendship for nearly 10 years by her cousin pretending to be someone else – has been downloaded more than 5 million times.
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Facebook estimates that 16% of its profiles are fake, while one-fifth of people polled by BetMinded in a 2021 UK survey said they had been catfished, rising to 38% of 25-34 year olds.
Experts believe this is just the tip of the iceberg, though, as only 5-10% of victims report being scammed.
“The increasing popularity of dating apps means there is a massive pool of potential victims for scammers now, and during lockdown many more people went online to connect,” explains Chloe Roche, fraud team leader at CEL Solicitors.
She works for one of the few law firms in the UK that take on catfishing cases, as they are often so complex and straddle legal and ethical lines.
“The popularity of documentaries like The Tinder Swindler has also encouraged more people to come forward,” she says.
Jane, an admin office worker, met Ed on dating site OurTime in February 2020, and they immediately clicked.
Ed claimed to be a wealthy offshore oil worker on a contract in North Korea, who lived in Germany but had a house near Jane’s hometown in Scotland.
In an intense online-only relationship, the couple fell in love and discussed marriage.
This was the first time since her husband’s death from cancer four years earlier that she had been in a relationship.
When, a month after they’d met online, Ed couldn’t access his German bank accounts due to issues in Korea, Jane sent him £300 so he could pay for his son’s school trip.
“I had no reason not to believe him,” she says.
“We spoke most days, telling each other what we’d been up to. I was so happy when Ed proposed after three months. He had given me no reason to doubt him, so when he asked me to send money, I did.”
I was so happy when Ed proposed after three months. He had given me no reason to doubt him, so when he asked me to send money, I did.
Ed told Jane he was having difficulties and needed some financial help, promising he would pay it all back as soon as he could get to Germany and sort things out.
Then he needed funds to book the flights to get home to Germany and move to the UK, so she helped him again.
And then he caught Covid and needed funds to pay for hotel quarantine. Eventually, his requests ran to £126,000, which Jane covered with a loan secured against her home.
“I just wanted to help him get to the UK so we could be together,” explains Jane.
“He’d shared so many photos of his life, his houses, his son, even his late wife – who he claimed had also died of cancer – I trusted he was who he said he was.”
Ed sent her a photo of his KLM plane ticket to the UK before he boarded in November 2020 and Jane waited excitedly for the text to say he’d landed. The message never came.
Fraught with worry, she called the airline, who confirmed a man with the same name and date of birth as Ed had booked a ticket, but had never boarded.
“I thought something terrible had happened,” Jane recalls. “I thought he’d been attacked and left for dead somewhere.”
On November 28, Jane reported Ed as a missing person to her local police station.
“I told them my whole story,” she says. “They ran checks and then dropped a bombshell.
I told them my whole story. They ran checks and then dropped a bombshell.
They said: ‘We’re sorry, but you’ve been the victim of a love scam.’ I just broke down. I had invested so much in him, but it had all been a lie. I went home and couldn’t eat or sleep. I took the next day off work and went to the bank and told them what had happened. They weren’t helpful at all. It was a horrific time.”
While Jane faced losing her home, the ramifications were not just financial.
“That Christmas was awful. I felt suicidal and thought I’d lost everything,” she says. “I couldn’t talk to friends and family because I felt so stupid – I’d been waiting for Ed to arrive in the UK before telling them about the relationship. I went to the GP and was prescribed antidepressants.”
Police are continuing to investigate the man behind Jane’s con, who they believe lives in Hamburg.
Ed did try to contact her one more time, months later, texting to ask her if she thought he was a “scammer”, but Jane simply passed on the message to police.
Remarkably, Jane was one of the lucky ones. She found CEL Solicitors through an internet search and the firm was able to launch a claim and recover all her funds from the bank.
“This is our fastest-growing area and we get thousands of enquiries every month,” Chloe confirms.
“Banks will often make victims feel at fault, but often it is they who are at fault, because they must keep track of transactions and monitor irregular banking activity. They have a duty to intervene, and when they fail in their duties, we help victims recover the funds from them.”
Catfishers can be individual chancers or networks of criminals linked to organised crime, who use their victims to launder money.
They share scripts and tips and there is even evidence that they hold conferences to discuss best practice. Often, several catfishers will work on the same victim.
Research shows that even if there was never a sexual relationship, the psychological trauma could be akin to rape, because you let someone in, trust them and that is used against you.
The international nature of the crime and the ease with which scammers can disappear make it challenging to prosecute.
It is also often not taken seriously and victim shaming is common.
In Jane’s case, the motivation was financial, but catfishing can be done for sexual reasons, revenge, even boredom.
For Anna Rowe, 49, a teacher from Canterbury in Kent, her catfisher was in it for sex and control.
Anna now runs Catchthecatfish.com and is spearheading a campaign calling for it to be made a crime to create fake profiles with the intent of using them to con people into sex.
In August 2015, the divorced mum of two matched with Antony Ray on Tinder. They messaged, spoke and shared photos.
After three months, they finally met in person and the relationship became intimate, with them beginning to see each other regularly.
“When we first met, he walked in, scooped me up, kissed me on the forehead and said: ‘I’m so pleased I’ve finally met you.’ He’d completely got under my skin,” Anna recalls.
Antony said he worked in the legal department of an aviation company, had three sons and was divorced.
He travelled for business and saw his sons at the weekend in Leeds.
After a few months, he began talking about marriage.
Catfishing is primarily an abuse of power over someone else, and the psychological damage it causes is hard to recover from.
“He used a process called love-bombing,” says Anna.
“He mirrored back what he knew I wanted to hear. He showed vulnerability. He met my boys. It was all so easy.”
But nine months after they’d first made contact, Antony’s visits suddenly stopped and Anna’s offers to meet his sons were met with excuses.
She became suspicious and, on a whim, reactivated her Tinder profile using photos of another woman. Within 20 swipes, Antony’s profile appeared.
She swiped right and waited to see what would happen. Two days later, he matched with her and sent a message.
Anna played along and, when Antony requested her WhatsApp number, she used an old phone.
They messaged and when Antony asked for photos, she sent him a photo of herself, rather than the fake one she’d used on the account.
“He realised he’d been caught out and messaged: ‘Goodbye’, with kisses. I was in shock. I’d been played. I started panicking and realised I didn’t know who the hell this man was that I’d been in a relationship with for nine months.”
Anna began some clever detective work to unmask the real Antony.
She set up fake profiles and matched with him, then strung him along while using the geolocation function in Tinder to map his movements.
Over six weeks, she discovered that during working hours he was 72km from her house, at night his locations varied and at the weekend he was 335km away, which corresponded to Leeds, where he said his sons lived.
One evening in November 2016, Anna drove the route she knew he took when he visited her to find what lay at the 72km mark – and saw Antony walking out of an office.
It is long-term grooming and about convincing someone to do something against their wishes and best interests, whether that’s giving money, sex, or giving up control.
With the name of his workplace, she was then able to find his real identity through LinkedIn.
Anna later discovered through her campaign and after doing media interviews that Antony was married and had conned at least 17 other women into relationships, five of whom he was seeing at the same time as her.
She confronted him on the phone at his work and he told her he was mentally troubled and sexually confused.
He’s since divorced and is now on dating sites under his own name.
Anna, who had been duped into this sexual relationship through deception and manipulation, reported it to the police in January 2017.
“They laughed at me. The attitude was: ‘Your boyfriend lied to you, what do you want us to do about it?’”
But she persisted and the case is now under investigation.
Meanwhile, the petition she launched has more than 50,000 signatures.
It argues that a person is unable to make informed decisions about entering a relationship if they are being deceived.
Similar legislation was enacted in New South Wales, Australia, whereby sex obtained through deception means the person has not consented.
He mirrored back what he knew I wanted to hear. He showed vulnerability. He met my boys. It was all so easy.
According to a survey by Sugarcookie magazine, 13% of catfishing victims suffer serious emotional distress, while 9% experience mental health issues.
Dr Elisabeth Carter, forensic linguist and associate professor of criminology at Kingston University, believes that the impact of it is misunderstood.
“Catfishing is primarily an abuse of power over someone else, and the psychological damage it causes is hard to recover from,” explains Elisabeth.
“Research shows that even if there was never a sexual relationship, the psychological trauma could be akin to rape, because you let someone in, trust them and that is used against you.
"It is long-term grooming and about convincing someone to do something against their wishes and best interests, whether that’s giving money, sex, or giving up control.”
It’s only in the last two months that Jane has felt able to open up to her best friend about her catfishing experience. She’s also found love again, this time IRL.
“I met someone else, not online but a friend of a friend, and we are getting married in October. So everything worked out well and I can now finally put it all behind me,” she says.
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“Ed, whoever he was, is despicable. All these catfishers are. They prey on vulnerable people and then disappear – but they shouldn’t just be able to get away with it.”
Sign Anna’s petition at Change.org/p/creating-fake-online-profiles-for-sex-is-fraud-make-catfishing-a-crime.
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