Catfish crime has plagued people for years.
This week, a grieving family begged parents to monitor their children’s online activity after a former Virginia police officer entrapped a 15-year-old girl online. He then traveled to Southern California, where he allegedly killed the girl’s mother and grandparents.
“Parents, be aware of your children’s online activity. Ask what they are doing and who they are talking to,” said the girl’s aunt, Michelle Brandin.
This isn’t the first catfish scam to hit the headlines. Football player Manti Te’o, whose story is featured in a recent Netflix documentary, fell victim to a catfish scam. Celebrities, including musician Brad Paisley, have also been victims of similar pranks.
So what is catfish, and why do people do it? How do you protect yourself and your children? Here’s what you need to know.
Catfishing is a form of online deception in which people use fake photos and identities to create fictitious personas. They do this for a variety of reasons, including targeting potential love interests or people they’re trying to befriend.
Other catfish may be child predators, trying to gain the trust of minors. In the Southern California case, 28-year-old Austin Lee Edwards lured the girl by portraying himself as a teenager, authorities said. Catfish can be found on most social media platforms, although investigators did not provide details about which platforms the suspect used or how long he had known her.
“Catfish definitely have psychological attributes, including the ability to pretend to be someone else and exert influence over vulnerable groups,” said Aaron Brantly, an associate professor at Virginia Tech and director of the university’s Tech4Humanity Lab.
Social media sites and apps — along with catfish scams — have grown in popularity in recent years. Experts say there are some potential signs people should be heeding.
“Parents should be on the lookout for children who develop strong attachments to individuals in both physical and virtual spaces,” Brantley said. “Often, those who engage in catfish fishing will try to encourage their targets to hide their online presence from friends and family. relation.”
Fareedah Shaheed, an internet safety expert who focuses on protecting children online, said another warning sign is people not wanting to appear on video calls or canceling plans to meet.
FBI urges people to think twice when someone shows up “It’s so perfect” because it could be part of a romance scam. Sometimes this means that the person has studied the digital footprint of the intended victim to learn more about them. This is another reason why people should be cautious about the information they share about themselves or their children online.
“Scammers can use details shared on social media and dating sites to get to know and target you better,” the FBI said, warning against people who “quickly ask you to leave social media sites for direct communication” or try to isolate others From friends and family.
Because social media plays such an important role in our lives today, safety experts say parents should have honest and unbiased conversations with their children about digital safety, while even engaging with their online world. This can be a lifeline connecting them to the ubiquitous virtual reality of their children.
“For example, play games with them, send each other funny or entertaining short videos from social media, listen to their games or social media stories, be curious about their online activities and ask them questions,” Shahid said. “Be a good digital role model. If you want them to post on social media with privacy in mind, make sure you’re doing the same. Have an internet privacy conversation when they see you doing what you say Much easier.”
Talking openly about digital safety allows parents to keep tabs on who their kids are talking to online. It can also help parents understand the specific apps their children are using and identify any anomalies in online behavior.
“Discussing who children are interacting with in the online environment and establishing a model of trust and an atmosphere of openness and transparency is an important step in minimizing potentially adverse interactions in online spaces,” Brantly said.
Parents should also set clear times for device use and establish patterns and boundaries about when and how devices are used. “When in doubt, start the conversation from a point of view of mutual trust,” he added.
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 solid examples.
“The internet can be a dangerous place if internet security and privacy are not taken seriously,” she said. “If your kids are online, take a moment to learn 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 protecting kids online.”
Private conversations are best held in the car or on the walk — in a comfortable setting that doesn’t seem intimidating.
“Before you allow them access to social media, make sure your internet privacy conversation is consistent and not just one long conversation,” Shahid said. “Make your internet privacy conversations real conversations, not lectures. Ask them questions and ask them what they think they should be doing about their online privacy, then give them some additional advice and the reasons for each advice.”
Digital security experts have other advice for how internet users can fight catfish. They include:
- Ask for a live video conference with the people you have meaningful online interactions with. “Make sure they don’t have technical problems, life problems and dark situations all the time,” Shahid said. “It’s a way cat-phishers often try to get out of video conferencing.”
- Talk to other family members and friends about who you talk to online. Involving someone other than yourself can help spot red flags, lies, and deceit.
- Never send money to anyone you have only contacted online or by phone. “It’s important to recognize that technology and tools change, but the conversation about security, right and wrong should remain relatively consistent,” Brantley said.
The most important tip the experts have to offer is: trust your instincts.