WEST PALM BEACH, FLORIDA — According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, there were more than 24,000 people catfished by romance scams in 2021.
What is a "catfish?" Usually, it refers to a person who creates a false personal profile on a social networking site for fraudulent or deceptive purposes - and to be "catfished" is to be lured into believing the bogus persona is real.
"I'm not able to have Facebook because I've been taken down like 25 times," said Alessandro Cinquini, who lives in Miami.
That's because online imposters have been stealing his photos and creating fake profiles for years, using them to catfish women, Cinquini said.
One of them is Nicole Hayden from West Palm Beach.
"I was just on Instagram and I got a message — a DM — from a profile," Hayden said. "After about four or five days, I realized that it was probably a catfisher."
So Hayden looked up the real Alessandro.
"I had replied to one of his stories and, I don't know, it was about, like, three hours later, he replied back, and the rest is history from there,” Hayden said.
More than a year later, Hayden and Cinquini are now dating and working together to spread awareness about catfishing.
"If you think about the amount of online scams that there in any kind of sector, from romances, finances, crypto, it can be very hard to identify and distinguish what's true from what's not true," Cinquini said.
The FBI estimates that over $1 billion is lost by catfish victims annually.
"They're funneling money through multiple victims and so they're saying, 'Hey, my cousin Joe is going to send you $5,000. If you can take that money and convert it into crypto,'" David McClellan, founder of SocialCatfish.com, said.
McClellan said the No. 1 sign that you're being catfished is when the person asks you for money.
"The other thing, too, is if somebody won't video chat, McClellan said. "...Anybody who just falls in love with you right away and, you know, starts telling you all of these wonderful things."
When talking to anyone online, the FBI suggests researching the person's photo and profile through a reverse image search, which you can do through sites like SocialCatfish.com.
The FBI also suggests asking a lot of questions and if a person promises to meet you in person but always comes up with an excuse, that's a major red flag.
Cinquini has one more piece of advice for singles looking for love.
"Don't hide behind the phone," he said. "Be aware of scams, of course, be aware of impersonation, but if you want to do something, like a girl, go approach her and do things a little bit more old school and I think it's going to work."
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