Catfishing Version 2021: Struggle for the Heart of America

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It’s nearly Valentine’s Day and that means catfishing. If you’re new to this particular scam, it involves a subtle twisting of the heart-strings via digital media (dating sites, social media, chat rooms) by a make-believe Mrs. or Mr. Right who promises a love connection but is focused solely on money collection.

The catfisher is a social engineer, which is a fancy term for con artist. They are adept at getting strangers to provide information, sensitive data or money–and all online without ever meeting their mark in person. It’s a scam tailor-made for the Covid-19 pandemic.

This year it’s turned political. “In addition to looking for love on dating apps, [women] are also looking for justice,” MSNBC’s Liz Plank told viewers on NBC News.

While catfishing is usually pointed solely at the goal of getting “marks” to share information that can be leveraged into ill-gotten gains, a new twist on the old tactic is right in keeping with our hyper-political environment. This new crop of scammers aren’t interested in the leisure time only money can buy. They’re focused on prison time for guys and gals who participated in the January 6 Capitol building riot.

In a shady mode that seems curiously legal, this new variant of catfisher is tricking would-be insurrectionists into sharing evidence of illegal activity during the riot and sending it to the FBI. It’s in keeping with the FBI’s repeated requests for the public’s assistance in identifying the rioters. While this probably isn’t what they had in mind, it’s certainly an example of crowd-sourced problem solving.

“I’m changing my preferences from “liberal” to “conservative” on my dating apps and reporting anyone who brags about storming to capitol to the FBI,” one Twitter user said in a tweet.

Bumble released a statement to InStyle Magazine indicating that it had temporarily disabled the political affiliation filter as of Jan. 13.

“In the days following the attack on our nation’s Capitol,” @BumbleSupport posted to its Twitter feed, “we saw a noticeable uptick in people using the politics filter in a manner contrary to our terms and conditions, including people who have used our platform to spread insurrectionist content or who have attempted to organize and incite terrorism.”

“We’ve temporarily removed our politics filter to prevent misuse. However, please rest assured that we prohibit any content that promotes terrorism or racial hatred, and we’ve already removed any users that have been confirmed as participants in the attack of the US Capitol.”

The company restored the political filter Jan 15.

Bumble and Match Group (owner of Tinder, Hinge, Plenty of Fish, OkCupid, and Match.com) also blocked the accounts of anyone linked to the riot.

The efforts to identify the rioters hasn’t been without controversy. Dating sites are technically supposed to protect their accounts and members from catfishing and fraud, and highlighting their susceptibility to catfishing doesn’t cast their security in the best possible light. Additionally, Bumble’s decision to temporarily pull political affiliations led to criticism that it was protecting those responsible.

The takeaways here are not at all political. Dating sites are vast depositories of precisely the kind of information that I’m constantly warning people not to post: It is a private information free-for-all. The above situation only underscores the inherent risk with online dating: You never know who you’re actually talking to. Act accordingly.

Founder, CyberScout. Co-founder, Credit.com.