Florida ranks third in the nation in ‘catfishing’

Florida ranking high in a list involving the word “fish” is usually something you would be proud of.

But these aren’t exactly the kinds of fish you want to catch.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) refers to “catfishing” as an online romance scam. In this type of fraud, scammers take advantage of people looking for romantic partners on dating websites, apps, or social media by obtaining access to their financial or personal identifying information.

Scammers hide behind a fraudulent profile they’ve created on social media, then befriend their victims with the goal of earning their trust. Once they have their victim’s trust, that opens the possibility for a multitude of crimes, including blackmail, extortion or fraud.

According to data released by the FBI, Florida ranked third in the nation for these types of crimes in 2018.

The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center 2018 Report states that there were 1,191 reported victims in the state of Florida last year.

Okeechobee wasn’t spared in the wave of romance scams throughout the state in 2018.

In August 2018 the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office (OSCO) responded to a call regarding a harassment complaint wherein the victim claimed he was being blackmailed by someone on the internet.

According to the report of the incident prepared by OSCO Deputy Ben Vuleta, when he arrived on scene the victim stated that after experiencing marital problems with his spouse, he had become intoxicated and decided to go online in an apparent attempt to find someone to hook up with.

The victim reported that he discovered a website called “HelloHotties.com” and submitted his phone number to the website. Shortly after, the victim was contacted by a person with the supposed name of Abby. The victim, who was reportedly still intoxicated, was supposedly asked by Abby to use the video chat service Skype. While using Skype to chat, the victim was persuaded by Abby to masturbate on camera while Abby watched.

Shortly after the Skype session ended, the victim reportedly received a message from Abby that stated the entire incident was recorded and that the video would be released to the public unless payment was provided.

The victim sent $300 through Western Union to a person located in the Philippines. Shortly thereafter the victim received a message that stated all the lewd videos had been deleted.

Most of the time catfishing attempts aren’t as blatant as in that case. Often scammers will spend weeks or months earning a victim’s trust.

There are a couple things to look out for that could be telltale signs that the person you’re talking to isn’t legitimate. The FBI recommends keeping the following tips in mind if you’re developing a romantic relationship with someone online.

• Research the person’s photo and profile using online searches to see if the material has been used elsewhere.
• Go slow and ask a lot of questions.
• Beware if the individual seems too perfect or quickly asks you to leave a dating service or Facebook to go “offline.”
• Beware if the individual attempts to isolate you from friends and family or requests inappropriate photos or financial information that could later be used to extort you.
• Beware if the individual promises to meet in person but then always comes up with an excuse why he or she can’t. If you haven’t met the person after a few months, for whatever reason, you have good reason to be suspicious.
• Never send money to anyone you don’t know personally.v

Richard Marion is a staff writer and photographer at Lake Okeechobee News and can be reached at rmarion@newszap.com.

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