Catfishing: a security term most commonly used online when a bad actor (criminal) lures prospective victims to give money by pretending to be someone else. — My dad was a baby boomer born in 1946. At age 18, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and served a 13-month term in Vietnam. Dad was very proud of his “service to his country.” He wore the hats and pins that immediately identified him as a proud veteran and would often suggest that debit cards and the internet were a means of social control. Even with all his suspicions, he never quite appreciated how technology and information could be weaponized against him.
In 2019, my father joined the 21st century and purchased a smartphone. He called me on his new device and said, “Now, do I have to go to the library and checkout a Facebook?” A follow-up question was, “What’s an app?” Needless to say, he was in over his head, but he thought he was entering a new age and would brag about his phone and that he learned to text.
How My Dad Fell Victim to a Catfishing Scam
My dad was the type who visited a local coffee shop where he’d complain about the newer generation and there being too many lawyers and the normal rantings of retired people in small-town America. Some of the waitresses thought it would be funny to install a sassy silver singles app on his phone where he began to get requests to “friend” him. He had no idea why these “old crazy women” were calling him. He brought me his phone and I deleted the app in a flash of wizardry. But what my father and I didn’t know is that key pieces of his information were out there for the bad people to see. My father used his real name and phone number. Well, bad guys like to put that information to good use (for them).
Shortly after deletion, he received separate text messages outside the app on the phone number he plugged into the app. He received a text that went something like, “Hey, I saw you on sassy silver singles and I’m looking to move to your town.” A person reached out to him and started with very innocuous requests like if he could recommend a realtor, or if the schools in his town were nice. This back-and-forth blossomed into a full texting relationship where one individual who appeared to be a younger lady would contact him several times a day. His guard began to drop, and he truly failed to realize how information about him was being compiled. Simple statements that might appear genuine included, “Hey, if you’re married, I don’t want to upset your wife.” He replied that he was divorced, and he lived alone. He added that he retired with a full pension from the local mine, that he had five adult children, and other information that might seem routine in conversation. However, this was all done through texts. His guard clearly dropped the longer this texting relationship continued.
Above: This is the “girl” my dad was talking to. It is unknown at this point if the lady pictured here is involved or if this was a random photo lifted off the internet the actual scammer used. This person may be completely unaware their photo is being used to hustle unsuspecting people.
Techies have a funny acronym for a “girl I met online” defined as Guy In Real Life (G.I.R.L.). But a man in his late 70s had no exposure to such things. “Why me?” he would proclaim. “I’m nobody. She just likes an old man who tells it like they see it.” This “girl” pretended to be from England and discussed relocating to Arizona from the UK. She stated that she was due to inherit 2-million British pounds, and she wanted to move to a warmer climate. Dad passed the names of good realtors and good schools to the “girl.” The British “girl” said she had a 4-year-old daughter, and the duo discussed the pains of moving a child before kindergarten. My father was slowly disarmed by the charm of this “girl.” Dad didn’t have enough exposure to the apps to spot scammers.
On Christmas 2020, dad hadn’t arrived at my cabin, and I called him. He stated that he wasn’t meeting with us for Christmas. He stated that he was going to meet “a special lady who likes me for who I am.” This was the first I’d heard of any plans that they were supposed to meet. I dropped the hammer on him and said, “Let me guess, you told her you’re in room 305 of a hotel and you’re waiting with a pocketful of cash to take her around town.”
Above: Photo of the “girl” and her supposedly sick daughter. Again, it is unknown if the individuals shown in these photos are knowingly part of this scam.
He replied, “YES! I did. If she shows, great. I’m really looking forward to meeting her.” I said in no uncertain terms that he was going to be robbed and beaten for the money he had on his person. I ascertained that she had picked the place, and he checked in and told her the room number. The next knock at the door was going to be a robber and a “get the hell out of there” message for him. In an instant, my father presented as a scared little man. He was fearful of this dream not coming true. I persisted and said the “girl” will claim that she missed her flight and try to set him up for a second attempt. He seemed sad that maybe he had been duped and was quite embarrassed.
Above: Photo of the forged boarding pass that helped accelerate the investigation.
He left the hotel more lonely and somewhat suspicious than when he entered. It bugged him that his son (the lawyer) only saw the negative in people. He went home to spend Christmas alone … he spent too much time alone. The COVID pandemic made life on the elderly especially difficult. They became afraid of younger people who might give them the disease. I could tell he was not at ease and felt foolish. Also, part of him wanted to believe this relationship was real. It had been going on for seven months (tens of thousands of texts) — why would anyone in their right mind engage in so much conversation if they were not genuinely interested in him? Again, he failed to consider the totality of all the information he had given up to this “girl.” This was a man who spent decades performing hard labor. The thought of someone stringing him along served absolutely no human purpose in his mind.
Above & Below: Additional documentation I found that substantiate the travel arrangements and fraudulent attempts to gain access to money.
In March of 2021, my dad suffered a serious heart attack. I had to assume control of his resources and monies to help with his recovery. He kept the phone near his side, always close at hand. He would nervously check his phone like a teenager. His health quickly deteriorated, and he passed away.
Under normal circumstances, the story would be over. When I took possession of his phone, papers, and effects, I noticed a $30,000 wire transfer made out from his account. I noticed another $15,000 wire transfer out of his account, and so on. All monies were sent to a law firm in Kansas City. The sum total of the transfers was $168,000. To some people, this is all the money in the world. In fact, this $168,000 represented all the money my dad had to his name. There was even a loan request where he asked for an additional $30,000 loan that was “declined.” There were piles of gift cards in Amazon for $2,500, iTunes for $1,500, eBay for $3,500 — these gift cards totaled another $18,000. My father didn’t know what iTunes was. He never even bought anything off eBay. I went through his phone and found answers.
This “girl” told my father that her daughter was dying. There were pictures of a 4-year-old girl with a sign that said: “I can’t wait to meet you American Daddy.”
My father was instructed by this “girl” to send front and back pictures of the gift cards. This “girl” was able to redeem the gift cards electronically from anywhere in the world. All of this money was promised to provide for this so-called dying 4-year-old child. The pictures were there of a sad kid whose head had been shaved by someone to pretend to be sick. This “girl” had been working him slowly for nine months, every day texting him about how he was doing and was he eating enough vegetables, etc. The “girl” claimed the money was being used for her sick daughter’s treatments (wire transfers) and little toys from Amazon (gift cards) to keep her happy while spending the holidays in the hospital.
The worst realization was in March 2021, my father had stated that he had no more money to help. He was financially tapped out. The “girl” said she needed to know that he could care for the 4-year-old and to attempt a loan with his bank. But, the saddest news came when I compared the date of his heart attack with a text message wherein this “girl” said my dad could not be trusted to provide for her sick 4-year-old. When he realized he was taken advantage of, the heart attack occurred less than 30 minutes later. The disgrace of giving all that he had to someone who tricked him did him in. He sat on his hospital bed and sent a picture to this “girl” to state that he was in the hospital — maybe as proof that he was really ill.
When she failed to appear at his bedside, he knew he had been duped. He died ashamed and broke.
A Long Shot for Justice
I took this information immediately to law enforcement. I received the usual “the internet is not our jurisdiction,” if I was even able to reach an actual officer. I reached out to everyone from the FBI to Homeland Security, Arizona law enforcement, Kansas City law enforcement, etc. What concerned me the most was the forging of boarding passes for international travel. The “girl’s” boarding pass looked legitimate; she was pretending to come and visit my father. It was as if she was trying to say, “See, I really was coming to see you in December, look at my boarding pass.” I compiled a file of relevant documents that I’d forward to law enforcement. I was flatly rejected nearly every time. However, things turned around for the investigation when an officer reviewed my file of information. Apparently, the forging of a boarding pass created a true security concern, and the case began moving forward. The boarding pass, I’m told, was a good enough forgery to board a plane and that got the attention of law enforcement. Certain details I can’t reveal because it might jeopardize the ongoing investigation. Hopefully, the bad guys see justice, but I’m doubtful. And nothing will bring back my dad.
What You Can Do to Prevent Catfishing
I write this as a cautionary tale to other people. Watch out for the elderly. The strong men and women in our lives lose tremendous faculties as they age. The elderly are literally more prone to scams. We like to think of our elders in the best days. We don’t track the missteps or mistakes. The elderly don’t fully comprehend how information can be weaponized and used against them.
Help your loved ones by insisting that your family member have your contact information stored with their banks and credit cards. Ethical bankers will call the family to guarantee the transfer is valid prior to funds being disbursed. In fact, insist upon the bank being ordered to check with another member of the family if funds are directed to non-family members (or anyone). Most banks have a policy on the elderly sending money to persons outside their immediate family. Also, check their credit and credit card activity often.
Make sure that money doesn’t go out that hasn’t been vetted by someone else. The elderly can be quite generous to preferred charities, and they get used to people cold-calling them for donations. They don’t often perceive how much sensitive banking information they give away on what may at first appear to be routine calls. Scammers pretending to represent legitimate charities can steal a tremendous amount of sensitive information. Ask your family members to immediately report to you if someone is contacting them for any money.
Social media is a fantastic venue to see updated pictures of the grandkids, but remember we present a tremendous amount of information about ourselves when we post online to the world around us. I’ve heard stories of scammers pretending to be Mexican police and reporting to have a grandchild in jail. The scammer pretends to be a law enforcement official and requests a bond of $5,000 or kiddo goes to Mexican prison. A simple internet search of social media usually shows friends and family. It’s reasonable to assume that a college-age boy in the southwestern United States might travel to Mexico for spring break. The kiddo posts picture of Mexico and then grandparents get a demand for money and are instructed to tell no one or said relative goes to prison. Guess what? Grandparents pay $5,000 and the kiddo never was in trouble to begin with, but the money will never be recouped.
Please have a family discussion about scams and money. Never, never let parents send any money or divulge any information that comes from email or text messages. Please protect your loved ones so they don’t die alone and ashamed, as my dad did.
About the Author
Jason Squires is an attorney with over 23 years of defense experience protecting the rights of citizens accused of gun crimes. He is an avid firearms enthusiast and in his off-time he competes across the nation in three-gun competitions.
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