Nev Schulman has uncovered romantic frauds on his show “Catfish” for a decade. But he’s also dealt with financial scammers.
Even if a romantic scammer doesn’t start out looking for financial gain, they usually ask for money, Schulman says. He’s inundated with requests to investigate romantic catfish for the show, but Schulman also receives a good number of requests from people who are financially catfished.
“Much like catfishing, there's a lot of shame and embarrassment that tends to accompany being scammed,” Schulman says.
Schulman is partnering with Zelle, a financial app, to raise awareness about sending money safely using platforms you trust. We sat down with Schulman to talk about spotting financial scammers and the worst financial scam he’s seen on the show.
What are the chances of catching a financial catfish?
Unfortunately very low. By the time [the scammer] is finished, they're gone. The number's gone, the email's gone. It's very difficult to take any kind of reactive approach to catching people which is why I’m trying to take the proactive approach and avoid getting scammed.
We can’t always spot a romantic catfish. How can people spot a financial one?
There are a few very simple immediate red flags that you can look out for in terms of financial scams. First of all, your bank will never call you to ask you for your information. Even though it'll feel like you might have seen the caller ID say the name of your bank. If someone is saying they're from your bank and asks you to confirm something or give them some information — that's a no go. The best thing you can do is say, ‘I'm sorry, I'm not comfortable doing that right now. I'm going to call you guys.’
Hang up and then call your bank. If there is a situation where they do need to speak to you, it's always better if you call them because you know you're the one calling your bank.
Banks also never ask you to send money to yourself. Which I know seems strange, but there's a scam where someone is saying they're from your bank. They’ll say, ‘Hey, this account's been compromised. We want to move your money to another account so that it doesn't get taken. We just need you to send this money to a new account that we've created for you.’ That's also a no go.
What if there’s pressure to send money now?
If you are ever in a situation where you're looking to make a financial exchange and a person is either requesting money or gets a little pushy, or creates a sense of urgency — don't get bullied into sending money faster than you are comfortable.
If it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. But more times than not, if someone is pressuring you to make a deal it's because they're scamming you.
In general people should feel more comfortable doing some research, asking for referrals, and potentially looking up some reviews. If you're buying something from someone on the internet, ask yourself, ‘Has anyone else bought from them?’ ‘Do they have any reviews?’
Ask a seller to potentially FaceTime with you and show you to confirm they have the thing you want to buy. Taking the extra time and giving yourself permission to be a little guarded and to double and triple check things, is really the best thing you can do to avoid getting taken advantage of.
What motivates someone to steal someone else's money?
There's any number of things. I've come face-to-face with it on the show. Sometimes people are put in situations where they are out of work. They can't find a job or perhaps don't want to find a job, and unfortunately discovered that taking advantage of people through the internet is a real means of income.
It's something that they can do to support themselves and their family. What we do on the show is put a face to the catfish. We do our best to humanize them and show that they are in fact a person going through something.
The reality is scammers are human too. I'm not trying to humanize them and say that we should understand where they're coming from. Human beings are mischievous. When it comes to their best interests, they're willing to do things that unfortunately are not nice. We have to understand that people are in need and unfortunately that need often is money. If you have it and are willing to give it to them, they're gonna take it.
How are scammers finding victims?
A lot of people are getting their information on Instagram and TikTok. I got a message the other day from an account who sent me this long message saying, ‘I got this information about this new cryptocurrency. And these people said it was going to be this next big thing. They had a whole [social media] account about it and it seemed so legit. And they wanted to get me in early on for an amount.’
[The person] gave them [the money] and then all of a sudden they got an email to pay a broker fee. They ended up getting scammed for I think $3,500 over the course of a sequence of events, all of which was inspired by the idea that they thought they were getting in on something early.
That's a major thing right now. A lot of young people are looking to get invested in cryptocurrency, even just in small amounts. But that trend has inspired a whole new series of scams because it's a vulnerability.
It seems like scammers are going to great lengths to convince others. How can the normal person vet where they're putting their money?
When it comes to a catfish romance, if it feels too good to be true, it usually is. If your gut instinct to something is a little off, it raises an eyebrow, and something feels strange — trust that. We know that despite the vulnerability of large organizations, for the most part you're better off keeping your business transactions on the institutional level.
If you want to rent a house on Airbnb, do it on Airbnb. One of the things we see is a lot of people will make fake listings for real homes. You'll see it and want to rent it. You'll message them and say, ‘Hey, I'd like to book this and then they'll say, oh, great, look, I can save you some money. Why don't you pay me just directly? And I'll reserve the house for you. It'll save you a bunch of those stupid taxes and I can give you a better deal.’
Then you show up at the house and the people who live there are still there and their house is not in fact available for rent. Don't take yourself out of the protected platform site where you're hoping to make the deal, or rent the house, or buy the puppy, or whatever it might be.
As quickly as we're learning, and as much precaution you take, and security these platforms are putting in place, scammers are always going to be one step ahead. The best thing is talking about it. Don't be afraid or shy to ask your friends or family what they think. Always double-check with your bank. If a concern or something feels off or you get a weird email, report it. The more we report things, the more likely we are to find out if it's true or not, and also help inform our bank or platform that a scam exists so they can prepare themselves and hopefully avoid it as well.
We're all vulnerable and I think the more we can give ourselves permission to be cautious and aware of red flags the better off we'll all be.
What is the worst outcome of financial catfishing you've seen?
We did an episode a while ago where a young man had created a very real fake persona. He always had the ambition to be a hip hop producer and essentially created his own social media, and uploaded information to different music websites. He created profiles, a fake resume of musicians he'd worked with, and albums he'd helped produce. Then he created a fake email for himself as his assistant and figured out how to make an email that looked like it was from a big music label — and booked himself.
He got himself booked to speak at these events. He got himself VIP table service, limousines, and security at different venues and hotels. All under the guise of ‘I'm emailing on behalf of my client from this big label who’s coming to your town and needs a hotel.’
And people said: ‘Yes! We'd love to have this VIP music producer.’
He left a wake of unpaid bills behind him to the tune of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. Unfortunately there's very little resources for that because those people all willingly, without doing their research or getting a credit card deposit, provided those services of their own free will. So there isn't much you can do about that.
One limousine service was a small mom and pop company. For two weeks they hired drivers to take this guy around and then had to pay all these drivers. It put them out of business. They didn't have the $20,000 to $30,000 that the drivers were owed. It's sad.
I like to think that if that kid had been able to put that same creative energy and inspired activity towards something good, he probably could be a successful person. But people are misguided and unfortunately oftentimes fall victims to the dark side.
Image: Gabriella Trujillo