Catfishing during coronavirus: How an old internet scam still tricks people

Nursing student Kaytlin Cupp discovered fake accounts using a photo of her in hospital scrubs to lure victims into donating to an illegitimate charity.
Image: Kaytlin Cupp and Mike Sency were both victims of stolen photos used to create fake social media profiles.
Kaytlin Cupp and Mike Sency were both victims of stolen photos used to create fake social media profiles.Courtesy of Kaytlin Cupp and Mike Sency

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By Jareen Imam

An internet search for Mike Sency's name immediately yields hundreds of accounts spread across social media and dating websites.

Many of the profiles contain small differences, such as the photos used, the spelling of his name, even various details about his hobbies and interests. But they all share one common trait: They're fake.

Sency is used to it. For years, pictures he posted online have been used to create fake profiles by people looking to scam others, often out of money, a practice generally known as catfishing. His problem isn't a new one, but it is an issue that has proven nearly impossible to stop.

“I can spend anywhere from two to three hours reporting these fake accounts a week,” said Sency, 30, who lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and serves as a chaplain bodyguard in the U.S. Navy. “It’s definitely taken a life of its own.”

Since the start of 2019, his Facebook messages have filled up with hundreds of people claiming they’ve been scammed out of tens of thousands of dollars because of fake accounts using his name and likeness.

“I try to empathize and I try to help,” Sency said. “But people forget that I’m a victim as well, and it hurts my feelings. I am worried about how this is going to affect my future and my family -- even my mom gets calls from strangers claiming they know me because of these fake accounts.”

Deception has been part of the internet since its earliest days as a consumer tool, but the practice of using stolen photos arose as more people began creating social media and online dating profiles in the early 2000s. By 2012, catfishing had become a cultural phenomenon with an MTV documentary show that year chronicling the deceptions of online dating.

There are hundreds of fake accounts using Mike Sency's name, photo and likeness online. These are a few examples from Instagram.Mike Sency

Despite more widespread awareness of such schemes, taking people’s photos for fake accounts is growing more common as internet impersonating scams continue to rise. More than 19,470 people reported being victims of confidence fraud and romance cybercrimes worth about $475 million, according to the FBI’s 2019 Internet Crime Report; that’s up by 1,000 reports since 2018.

And as more of the world shifts online because of stay-at-home orders amid the coronavirus pandemic, some cybersecurity experts are warning consumers to be on high alert.

Ahmed Banafa, a professor of engineering at San Jose State University, said as platforms like the videoconferencing app Zoom become more ubiquitous, people’s identities may be increasingly stolen in new and creative ways.

Even video may not be safe.

“It’s easier to get people’s photos and likeness now," Banafa said. "Three years ago, we didn’t have TikTok. There are so many dating apps. We are sharing on more platforms."

Social media platforms don’t have much incentive to address fake profiles and they likely won’t change without some form of government regulation, he said.

“What is their motivation to make it harder to make an account? The user experience is important for social media users,” Banafa said. “This is a famous trade-off between convenience and security.”

He recently discovered his own identity was being used on fake accounts on Facebook and LinkedIn. Reporting and getting those fake profiles taken down was very time-consuming, he said.

“There is a big problem with the design of these apps. Security is an afterthought, but that’s wrong. It needs to be a building block,” Banafa said.

The coronavirus pandemic has also presented new opportunities for stolen photos to be used to perpetrate scams. Kaytlin Cupp, 25, a nursing student in Oklahoma City, said she’s been dealing with an impersonator Facebook account since the start of April. The fake account stole photos, one being of her dressed in nursing scrubs, and has been asking people to donate money to an illegitimate coronavirus fund.

This is the fake account on Facebook that Kaytlin Cupp says she and her friends reported 400 times before it was taken down by Facebook. The impersonating account was luring victims to donate to an illegitimate coronavirus charity account.Kaytlin Cupp

Cupp and her friends reported the fake account to Facebook more than 400 times before it was taken down three weeks later. Even though the fake account is gone, the damage remains, she said.

Since then, she has received messages from strangers claiming they have interacted with her on dating apps like Tinder, which she isn’t on, and were lured into sending money to the impersonator.

“I feel so violated," Cupp said. "I am not an influencer. I am busy with finals. I don’t spend a whole lot of time on social media. I thought I was knowledgeable about how to keep things private online."

Some social media and dating companies have tried to put in place systems to stop catfishing.

Facebook has warned that financially motivated scams usually include impersonating members of the public who are deemed trustworthy, such as members of the military, veterans and other professionals.

“We require people to use their real identities on Facebook. While we’ve strengthened our technology to better combat impersonation, this work isn’t finished and we’re committed to doing more to keep these impostor accounts off of our platforms,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

Tinder said in a statement to NBC News that catfishing is a violation of its user policies.

In January, the company rolled out a photo verification feature in which users are prompted to share real-time photos that match a series of poses to have their profile verified. Once the photos are analyzed and the profile is verified, users earn a visible blue check mark on their accounts.

Robert Siciliano, CEO of Protect Now, a security firm in Boston, said there are some ways for people to take precautions against catfishing.

He suggested setting up Google alerts with different variations of one’s name, making social media accounts private and reporting abuse.

As for Sency, he said he sometimes feels the effort that goes into reporting the abuse can feel like a waste of time.

“Why should I change my living situation just because some bad guy is taking advantage of my pictures?” he said.

But Siciliano advised people to take control of their digital brand, even if it feels overwhelming because those false accounts could affect future employment and other opportunities.

“These abuses could potentially be your legacy online. You have a choice of what your legacy is,” he said. “Everyone needs to either not be online at all or elevate their presence in such a way that it pushes whatever is negative down in search.”