Catfishing crimes have ensnared people for years.
This week, a grieving family implored parents to monitor their children's online activity after a former Virginia state trooper catfished a 15-year-old girl online. He then traveled to Southern California, where he allegedly killed the girl's mother and grandparents.
"Parents, please, please know your child's online activity. Ask questions about what they are doing and whom they are talking to," said Michelle Blandin, the girl's aunt.
It's not the first catfishing scam to make headlines. Football player Manti Te'o, whose story was featured in a recent Netflix documentary, fell victim to a catfish hoax. Celebrities, including musician Brad Paisley, have also been victims of similar hoaxes.
So what's catfishing and why do people do it? And how can you protect yourself and your children? Here's what you need to know.
Catfishers target victims for a series of reasons
Catfishing is a form of online deception in which people use fake photos and identities to create a fictional persona. They do it for various reasons, including to target potential love interests or people they're trying to befriend.
Other catfishers can be child predators trying to gain the trust of a minor. In the Southern California case, Austin Lee Edwards, 28, portrayed himself as a teenager to lure the girl, authorities say. While investigators did not provide details on what platforms the suspect used or how long he knew her, catfishers can be found on most social media platforms.
"Catfishing certainly has psychological attributes to it, including the ability to pretend to be someone else and to exert power over a vulnerable person," says Aaron Brantly, an associate professor at Virginia Tech and and director of the university's Tech4Humanity lab.
There are red flags that parents should look out for
Social media sites and apps -- along with catfishing scams -- have taken off in recent years. Experts say there are potential signals that people should be on the lookout for.
"Parents should pay attention to children who become intensely attached to individuals in both physical and virtual spaces," Brantly says. "Often, individuals engaged in catfishing will seek to encourage their targets to hide their online relationships from friends and family."
Fareedah Shaheed, an internet safety expert whose focus is protecting kids online, says another warning sign is people who don't want to appear on a video call or cancel plans to meet in person.
The FBI urges people to think twice when someone appears "too perfect," as it may be part of a romance scam. Sometimes, it means that person has studied their intended victim's digital footprint to understand them more deeply. That's another reason why people should be cautious of what they share online about themselves or their children.
"Scammers can use details shared on social media and dating sites to better understand and target you," the FBI says, warning against the type of person who "quickly asks you to leave a social media site to communicate directly" or attempts to isolate people from friends and family.
Parents can take measures to combat catfishing before it starts
With social media playing such a crucial role in our lives today, safety experts say that parents should have honest and nonjudgmental conversations with kids about digital safety, while even getting involved in their online worlds. This can be a lifeline that connects them to their children's pervasive virtual reality.
"For example, game with them, send each other funny or interesting short videos from social media, listen to their gaming or social media stories, get curious about their online activities and ask them questions about it," Shaheed says. "Be a good digital role model. If you want them to post with privacy in mind on social media, be sure that you're doing the same. It's much easier to have internet privacy conversations when they see you doing what you speak on."
Openly talking about digital safety allows parents to keep tabs on who kids are talking to online. It also helps parents know the specific apps their children are on and identify any anomalies in online behavior.
"Discussing who children are interacting with in online environments and developing a pattern of trust and an atmosphere of openness and transparency is an important step in minimizing the potential adverse interactions in online spaces," Brantly says.
Parents should also set clear times for device use, and establish patterns and boundaries on when and how devices should be used. "If in doubt, start a conversation that starts from a position of mutual trust," he adds.
For added security, parents can keep tabs on their kids' online activities through safety apps. Shaheed points to Norton Family, Microsoft Family Safety, Google Family Link and Apple Family Sharing as reliable examples.
"The internet can be a dangerous place if internet security and privacy aren't taken seriously," she says. "If your kids are online, please take time to understand how to keep them safe. You don't have to do this alone. Start searching for communities, tools, people and resources that can help you get started with protecting your children online."
Privacy conversations are best held in the car or while walking -- in a comfortable setting that does not appear intimidating.
"Be sure that your internet privacy conversations are consistent and not just one long conversation before you give them access to social media," Shaheed says. "Make your internet privacy conversation an actual conversation and not a lecture. Ask them questions and ask them what they think they should do for their own privacy online then give them some extra suggestions and the reason why for each suggestion."
Internet users can also take additional precautions
Digital safety experts have other suggestions for how internet users can combat catfishing. They include:
- Uploading any suspicious images on Google reverse images search to determine the origin.
- Asking for live video meetings with people you're having meaningful online interactions with. "Be sure that they aren't consistently having tech issues, life issues, dark environments," Shaheed says. "This is a way that catfishers often try to get out of a video meeting."
- Talking to other family members and friends about who you're speaking to online. Having people other than you in on it can help spot red flags, lies and deception.
- Never sending money to anyone you have only communicated with online or by phone. "It is important to recognize that technologies and tools change but conversations about safety, right and wrong should remain relatively consistent," Brantly says.
The most important tip experts have to offer is: Trust your gut instinct.
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