Doctor Warns Others After Online Romance Scams Use His Identity

Doctor Warns Others After Online Romance Scams Use His Identity

(Joe Kort, Feb. 9, 2021)

Royal Oak, MI – 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. He was sending her photographs I had posted over the years, including some with my nephews and niece (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 because of the photo exchange over social media. 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, since then, I have been the unwitting victim of more than 20 similar cons, and diligently have reported them to Facebook and Instagram, only frequently to be told this type of activity did not violate the site’s guidelines! 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 Facebook or Instagram, I looked into federal laws and eventually was able to force the platforms to take the fake profiles down. It did not 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. Surprisingly, when these women discover I’m not the person they thought I was, some ask if we can still be friends and begin following me on my real social media accounts, where they learn I am a happily married gay man with no children.

Catfishing is another romance scam

Exploiting vulnerable people for money – particularly those seeking romance – is at the heart of catfishing. It refers to people who claim to be someone else – who have stolen another person’s identity from Facebook or Instagram – and use it to romance and get money from unsuspecting victims.

Here are a few tips on how to avoid being a catfish victim:

~Try a quick Google search or run a background check on the person to determine if he/she person is who they claim they are.

~Check their online profiles. Does their profile photo look like a stock image and are they sharing much about themselves?

~Don’t share your personal information with anyone.

~Do not send money, no matter what hard luck story they tell you. That is a big red flag.

Ask to set up a video chat and see how they respond to your request. If they find ways to wiggle out of it, they probably are a catfisher.

Use a Webcam to catch the creep

Why “romance scam” victims don’t ask for webcam communication continues to concern me. I think it speaks loudly about the victims’ longing to be loved. When we’re online we increasingly are asked to verify that we’re “not a robot” or are asked to send a texted security code to prove our identity when logging into different accounts. Why aren’t people taking the same precautions when meeting a complete stranger?

COVID makes the scamming worse

Sadly, COVID has added to the plight of the world’s lonely and their vulnerability when it comes to the hope for romance. Victims tend to wear blinders and don’t see obvious exploitation tactics.

Gay men also have fallen prey to scammers who steal images of young, attractive and athletically built males in their scheme to pursue lonely older gay men who are longing for connection. Scammers also pretend they are attractive women and prey on older straight men who have lost their wives or female partners and are longing for connection.

Let’s stop the perpetrators

Regardless of their reasons for exploiting unsuspecting individuals, perpetrators must be stopped and held accountable for what they are doing. Facebook and other social media outlets must take identity theft more seriously and take stronger steps to stop these exploiters.

It is not okay to steal someone’s image as well as images of their minor children or other family members. It is not morally or legally justifiable to deceive someone and exploit their loneliness for money or their prejudices to create fear and violence. Something must be done to stop these crimes that are rampant across the country.

Author Joe Kort, PhD, LMSW, is the clinical director of The Center for Relationship and Sexual Health and a board certified sex therapist. Check out his website at www.JoeKort.com.

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