How can a non-tech-savvy older woman avoid catfishers/scammers?
September 3, 2021 10:03 AM   Subscribe

My mother-in-law is a cis hetero female in her mid-60's, and is seeking a long-term romantic relationship. She lives in the midwestern USA. She's on a dating site called Zoosk. One "man" she was corresponding with turned out to be a scammer(s), and now she's talking to another that's following the same patterns. What can be done to help her keep safe?

She developed a very strong emotional attachment to a man claiming to be working on an oil rig. (I know...) They corresponded for quite some time, and I guess she told them all about her family. (I'm told they've seen my wife's picture, for example. [shudder]) Most correspondence was in text format; I don't know if it was via the dating app or email or SMS. I know there was at least one voice call, and she says he had an [non-Anglo-American] accent. She was sent a video of the man but there was never a video chat.

It wasn't until this man's laptop supposedly got broken and he needed her to send him a replacement that she understood she was being scammed and cut contact. Maybe she suspected all along, maybe not, but I know she was emotionally invested enough by that point that it was fairly traumatic for her.

Now she's in online-only communication with another man and it's following the same pattern. (For all we know, it's the same scammer(s).) "He" hasn't asked for money yet but the rest of the family knows it's coming. And yet she's emotionally invested again, saying she wants to see how it plays out.

So to sum up, she seems pretty naive about the risks out there. And all this is just the stuff she realized she should tell my wife about; I wonder what dangers she's exposed herself to that we're still unaware of.

Things we're thinking of trying:

- Gifting her a subscription to a better-quality dating site, in hopes there will be no/fewer scammers there.
- Helping her draft guidelines she can follow in her interactions. (E.g. "He has to be local.")

But what site? (Assume money is not a concern.) What guidelines? And what else aren't we thinking of?

Right now we're focused on avoiding scammers, but bonus points for tips that would also help keep her safe from stalkers, etc. (Don't worry about COVID, there's ample advice on this site regarding that.) Keep in mind she's not at all tech-savvy; I doubt she could effectively follow the advice in this Ask for example. She lives on her own on the other side of the U.S. from us, so we can't be much direct help. It's probably best to aim for the low-hanging fruit to start with.
posted by commander_fancypants to Computers & Internet (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Personally, I would see if she could meet someone through her Church or Temple or any local organization. Or, you log in a MIL and prescreen a few fellows. I think it is an uphill battle trying to teach an older person about technology and scams at the same time they are getting emotionally involved. Maybe TeamViewer into her machine and you can do a few "meets" together and you tell her what you are seeing and thinking?
posted by AugustWest at 10:17 AM on September 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

I have an older friend who started long-distance online dating during COVID. She seems a lot savvier than your MIL but I still worried because she’d never done online dating and hadn’t really dated at all since the 80s when she met her ex-husband.

Anyway, she’s now in a serious relationship with someone who is not a scammer. The two things she did that I think helped: 1. She slowly escalated from text to voice to video. 2. One of her best friends is a PI and ran a background check on the guy.

For your MIL, I think talking to her about escalating contact in a similar way could be helpful - it doesn’t eliminate all scammers but it does eliminate catfishers and makes things more difficult for married men. And I think it might be worthwhile to consider background checks once they are talking about meeting or getting more serious.

On the positive side, it sounds like your MIL was savvy enough to realize she was being scammed before she actually got scammed, which should somewhat put your mind at ease. She might just need to get her heart hurt a few times to learn to stay away from scammers and I know that’s hard to watch but we all have to learn our lessons in our own ways.
posted by lunasol at 10:31 AM on September 3, 2021 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Assume everyone is a scammer until proven otherwise. To prove otherwise, limit matches to:

-local people
-willing to meet in person
-within a week of matching
-in a public place
-at fairly short notice (i.e., in the next day or two)
-for less than an hour.

At least two video chats before the meeting, so that she can recognize them. Have a friend go to the arranged meeting spot first and hang out there as a quick out if something feels wrong. Don't schedule a second date at the first date. Discussion of family is OK, but limit identifying details. Any discussion of her money or requests for purchases within the first six months should be considered suspicious.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:45 AM on September 3, 2021 [11 favorites]

I'd try to work out some guidelines with her, like
- not ever giving out information that can be used for identification purposes (address, birthday, birth date, family members' full names, etc. - there should be lists of this stuff somewhere)* until fully vetted
- not ever sending pictures of other family members or identifiable people until fully vetted
- not giving them social media links until they're much better vetted, if at all
- escalating contact the way lunasol describes as a means of at least partially vetting them
- "has to be local" is a good one (though local scammers can exist too)

*She should also be aware of non-dating scams that can make use of these kinds of personal information, like the one where you get a phone call supposedly from a family member who's away from home and whose wallet has been lost/stolen and they need you to send them some money urgently, and during the conversation they drop names and other private information in a way that makes them sound legit

Reading about other people's experiences being scammed might help, both with awareness and with self-esteem.

Is she very lonely? Does she have other people to talk with about her life besides these men?
posted by trig at 10:48 AM on September 3, 2021 [4 favorites]

This sounds like a romance scam run by the Black Hand organized crime group. (CTV has done a series on this.)

They'll steal other people's photos to create fake profiles (sometimes they might steal photos from aspiring actors or models, or just regular people.)

These types of scams have been on the rise during COVID, where people are more isolated and lonely.

Depending your location, your local police force/government might have information about avoiding romance scams.
posted by Pademelon at 10:59 AM on September 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

Oh, and try to make sure she's comfortable talking about this stuff. Being scammed is nothing to be ashamed of; it's happened to some of the most tech-savvy people out there. Heads of state with entire security apparatuses are constantly duped into prank calls. People trying to keep this a secret can get into even deeper trouble, and also fail to protect their family and friends from scammers who might now have personal information about them. The fact that she was willing to talk to your wife about this at all is very good, and you want to keep her confident and unashamed.
posted by trig at 10:59 AM on September 3, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I'm in my early 60s and I've given up on online dating because of scammers. I'm no beauty, and posted realistic photos of myself, so I knew when every contact I had was from a gorgeous silver fox that these were all scammers. One of them even used a picture of The Most Interesting Man In The World, FFS. Every single one of them was an oil rig worker, engineer, army medic, etc. I never replied to a single one of them and decided to settle into cat lady bog witch hagdom instead.

Not long after that there was a BBC TV series called For Love Or Money, which highlighted all these types of scams. The common denominators were:

- claimed to live locally to the woman, but had some exotic job that took them abroad, so they could never meet;
- very early on, getting the women to give out their number so they could contact one another outside the dating app;
- the women were usually not the most attractive and were often much older than the man, who was without exception extremely handsome (using, obvs, stolen pics);
- the men would escalate things very quickly, with flattery and picking up on all the information the women gave out about themselves (usually far too much) to make them fall in love with the men;
- they were never able to video call, or if they did, it would be in a darkened room so their face couldn't be seen;
- alternatively, they'd take a video of someone else and dub a voice - in one case, Joe Cross's face in a video, but with a different (African accented) voice dubbed in;
- the BBC recorded calls between the women and the scammers and every single man had a Nigerian accent, even though they'd claimed to be American, Australian, Canadian or French;
- after the man had allegedly moved abroad to work on a contract, something would happen that would put him in some sort of peril - the local bank had frozen his money, he'd got into difficulty with equipment breaking, etc., and so needed emergency funds that he promised to pay back;
- once the first amount was paid by the woman, usually a small amount to start with, demands would escalate, due to ever more implausible scenarios that the men had found themselves in;
- even when presented with evidence of the scams, the women would often still persist in sending money.

It was depressing to see, even where there's been so much publicity about romance scams, that women still fall for it, some of them sending their entire life savings and mortgaging their homes to send money to these bastards. Loneliness is a bitch.

So, my advice is to tell your MIL to stick to people who are local, don't give out her personal phone number but stick to messaging via the app or website, if she likes someone, arrange to meet for coffee in a public place, and if there's any mention of money, cut off all contact, block and report.

If her tech skills are up to it, show her how to do an image search to see if the photos of the men appear elsewhere on the web.
posted by essexjan at 11:29 AM on September 3, 2021 [18 favorites]

Have her read up on typical scammer behaviors, like essexjan's list. Also don't give anybody money. It sounds like she needs to know what to look out for most of all.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:47 AM on September 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One more - she might consider a credit freeze, as a general precaution (not just for this scenario).
posted by trig at 11:58 AM on September 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

A standard piece of "how do I meet someone" advice applies here. Get involved in your community - volunteer, join a meet-up group of people with like minded interest group, take a class.

In addition to the potential of meeting a new partner who is definitely real and definitely local, you MIL will make new friends and build a social circle which is so important no matter how old you are, but especially for older folks who can easily get isolated and lonely.

In my neck of the woods there are hiking groups for people over 60, bike riding groups, options to audit classes at the local university for seniors, language classes, volunteer ushering at the theater (pre COVID), contra dancing, meaningful movies get togethers, etc.
posted by brookeb at 12:05 PM on September 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

A simple rule of thumb, which I apply to my FB sales/purchases, is that ANYTHING that seems off or strange or non-standard, is an immediate deal breaker, no explanations required or entertained.
Online transactions are 100% transparent and above board or they're no go.
posted by signal at 12:46 PM on September 3, 2021 [3 favorites]

If money isn't really a concern, maybe an old-fashioned matchmaker might be a good way to go?
posted by ApathyGirl at 1:13 PM on September 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Is she very lonely? Does she have other people to talk with about her life besides these men?

She has a daughter, son-in-law, and grandkids locally, thankfully. And my wife calls her at least weekly. I don't think she's active in her church or other community groups; we will definitely encourage her to look into that.

Thanks everyone for all the great answers so far; clearly we're hardly the only people with this problem!
posted by commander_fancypants at 2:32 PM on September 3, 2021

I honestly don't know whether this will work, but: could you and she insert something into her profile that communicates "catfishers step off"?

Something like "No oil riggers, no overseas doctors, local only."
posted by humbug at 6:15 PM on September 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

Linking to a series of questions I asked a couple years ago. They got married, he's here on a green card, and it really really sucks.

Good job getting ahead of this. Keep communication up and isolation of you MIL to a minimum. It's a serious concern and needs a lot of attention. These scammers are very good at what they do and are incredible emotional manipulators.
posted by coldbabyshrimp at 6:25 PM on September 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

Coldbabyshrimp, that is wild! I’ve wondered what happened to your grandma. Sounds like it’s crossed from scammer to sugar mama.
posted by amanda at 7:21 AM on September 4, 2021

Best answer: Education is the key as is giving her an easy way to check in with you. Please reassure her that these are very common, these scammers are professional scammers and finding and cultivating scams is their job. Please tell her that you or your wife are always available to help assess any situation. I remember when my mom started dating and I said something like, “well, that’s a red flag” and she didn’t know what that meant. Maybe send her a funny “rules for dating” aimed at her age group. You can also look through the archives of the AARP fraud watch podcast and send her a couple relevant episodes. They are pretty entertaining and could help her feel informed while also feeling “in on it.” Stress to her that she should also talk to all her friends about this to help protect them and educate them. It’s easy to feel foolish and a person who feels foolish is an easy mark. By giving her all the info and enlisting her to “share the gospel” she’ll be helping her community and standing up for what’s right.
posted by amanda at 7:28 AM on September 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

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