How Do Catfishers Get Money?

What is a Catfisher?

A catfisher is an individual who uses the Internet, and in particular, online dating websites to lure people into a scam romance ( The term “catfisher” comes from the 2010 documentary film Catfish, which followed a man who discovered he was being catfished by a woman he met online and had fallen in love with. The catfisher pretends to be someone they are not by using fake names, photos, and life stories. They build an online relationship with their victim to eventually convince them to send money or gifts.

Catfishers create completely fictional identities or steal photos and information from real people to make their personas more believable ( The catfisher’s end goal is often financial fraud, but motives can also include pursuing an emotional connection or relationship, or simply the entertainment of being able to trick people. Whatever the motive, catfishing involves deliberate deception and manipulation.

With the rise of online dating, social media, and anonymous communication on the internet, catfishing scams have become more common. People need to be cautious when interacting with anyone online, especially potential romantic partners they’ve never met in person.

Romance Scams

One of the most common techniques catfishers use to get money is through romance scams. This involves the catfisher pretending to be a romantic interest in order to manipulate the victim into sending them gifts and money. According to the FTC, in 2022 nearly 70,000 people reported losing money to romance scams, with reported losses exceeding $1 billion (1).

Typically, the catfisher initiates contact through social media or dating sites. They build trust and an emotional connection with the victim by sharing fake details about their life and professing their love. Eventually, they concoct stories about why they urgently need money – for medical bills, travel visas, business needs, etc. Out of care for their supposed lover, victims end up wiring large sums of money to the scammer (2).

Some common lies told by romance scammers include claims about traveling or living abroad, family emergencies, and financial troubles. Data from the FTC reveals military personnel are frequently impersonated to take advantage of victims’ sympathies and respect (3).

The trauma from romance scams often goes beyond just financial loss. Victims can experience severe emotional distress once they realize the entire relationship was fake. It’s important to be vigilant about warning signs like refusing to video chat, making excuses to not meet in person, using stories that don’t add up, and pushing for money.

Fake Charities

One common way catfishers make money is by creating fraudulent charities or crowdfunding campaigns. They will make up a fake cause or claim to need money for medical bills, disaster relief, or other sympathetic reasons. According to one source, fake charity scams accounted for over $32 million lost by victims in early 2019, rising to over $141 million two years later. U.S. Catfishing Scam Statistics.

The catfisher sets up an elaborate charity website and social media profiles to appear legitimate. They may even register as a nonprofit organization. Then they share emotional stories and use the charity branding to solicit donations. However, the money raised goes directly into the catfisher’s pocket rather than the advertised cause. These sham charities often exploit current events and tragedies when people are eager to donate money to help. With crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe, it’s easy for scammers to quickly set up fake campaigns as well.

It’s important for donors to research charities before contributing money. Look for signs like lack of transparency, little online presence outside of donation requests, or recent incorporation. Reputable charity evaluators like Charity Navigator can help verify legitimate nonprofits. When in doubt, it’s safer to donate to established charities rather than individuals or new organizations.

Merchandise Scams

One of the most common ways catfishers make money is through merchandise scams. This involves advertising and selling fake or non-existent products online. According to the Federal Trade Commission, scammers made away with $245 million through such scams in 2021, accounting for around 25% of all reported fraud losses [1].

The scam typically works like this: The catfisher sets up an ecommerce website or online marketplace account and lists products like electronics, jewelry, designer clothing, or other coveted items at very low prices. They may pretend to be a wholesaler with excess inventory they need to liquidate quickly. After receiving payment, they either ship a cheap counterfeit or knockoff version of the product, or nothing at all.

Social media platforms have become prime hunting grounds for this type of scam. Scammers promote their fake online stores through sponsored posts and ads designed to look organic. They often steal photos from legitimate websites to make their merchandise look authentic. According to the FTC, around a third of merchandise scams originate on social media [1].

The rise in ecommerce and social media usage during the pandemic led to a jump in this type of fraud. Maintaining vigilance and only purchasing from reputable sellers can help avoid becoming a victim. Checking reviews and not being enticed by deals that seem too good to be true are key protective steps.


Ransomware is a form of malicious software that infects a computer and restricts users’ access to the infected system or personal files until a ransom is paid. Ransomware attacks have become increasingly common in recent years, with costs expected to exceed $265 billion annually by 2031 according to Cybersecurity Ventures. The FBI reported 2,084 ransomware attacks in 2021, up from 782 in 2020.

Ransomware works by encrypting files on infected systems using complex cryptography that makes decrypting files nearly impossible without the encryption key. Once infected, ransomware displays messages demanding ransom payments in cryptocurrency in exchange for the key that can decrypt the files. If victims refuse to pay, they risk losing access to their data permanently.

Some of the most damaging ransomware strains include Ryuk, Conti, REvil, and RobinHood. Victims of ransomware attacks include corporations, government agencies, healthcare facilities, and everyday internet users. The average ransom payment was $740,144 in Q2 2023, according to Backblaze, representing a spike in costs.

Ransomware presents a lucrative business model for cybercriminals. By extorting businesses, hospitals, and individuals to regain access to their systems and data, ransomware gangs are able to generate massive profits. Implementing robust cybersecurity measures across devices and networks is key to reducing risk.

Gift Card Scams

One of the ways catfishers trick people into sending them money is through gift card scams. In these scams, the catfisher will convince the victim to purchase gift cards for various fake reasons and provide them with the gift card numbers and PINs, allowing the scammer to steal the funds loaded onto the cards. According to a 2021 survey from AARP, around 1 in 10 people have fallen victim to gift card scams.[1] Gift card scam reports rose by 50% in 2023 compared to 2022, with consumers reporting more than 46,000 cases of gift card or reload card fraud just in the first three quarters of the year.

The catfisher often pretends to be a family member, romantic partner, government agency, or employer in need of urgent financial assistance. They will make up stories and pressure the victim into buying gift cards from popular retailers like Amazon, iTunes, Google Play and more under the guise that they need the card information to pay bills, taxes, or other expenses. Some common gift card scam tactics include:

  • Pretending to accidentally send the victim money and asking them to refund it via gift cards
  • Claiming the gift cards are needed as payment for a fake service, product, or fine
  • Saying gift cards are the only form of payment they can receive right now due to an emergency or temporary situation

Since gift cards are largely untraceable and lack the fraud protections of credit cards, once the victim shares the numbers, the scammer can quickly cash out the card and the funds are almost always lost. The Federal Trade Commission advises consumers to recognize the signs of gift card scams and resist demands to pay anything with a gift card.


Investment Scams

One of the most common ways catfishers get money is through investment scams. They create fake companies or investment opportunities to lure victims into “investing” money that will never be seen again.

A classic example is the Ponzi scheme, where returns paid to early investors are funded by money from later investors rather than actual profits 1. Victims are enticed by promises of unusually high returns. Of course, the scheme eventually collapses when new investments dry up and earlier investors cannot be paid. Charles Ponzi’s original scheme in the 1920s took in an estimated $20 million.

Other fake investment opportunities dangle the prospect of getting in early on the next big thing. But the businesses, products, and financial performance are completely fabricated. For example, fraudsters have faked companies involved in cryptocurrency, cannabis production, and medical technology 2.

Catfishers rely on creating impressive websites, marketing materials, and conversations to convince potential investors. But if something sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is. Only work with licensed, reputable financial professionals and thoroughly research any investment opportunity.

Wire Transfer Scams

Wire transfer scams involve convincing victims to send money through wire transfers for fraudulent purposes. According to the FBI, losses from wire transfer scams totaled over $220 million in 2020, a 13% increase from 2019 (CertifID). Suspected wire fraud identified by CertifID in 2022 totaled $1.4 billion, targeting 83% of their customers at least once (ALTA Blog).

Scammers often pretend to be representatives from banks, businesses, or government agencies. They may claim the victim owes money or fees, and pressure them to wire funds immediately. Other tactics include posing as a romantic partner in need, a relative in an emergency, or using ransomware to extort money. The criminals provide wire instructions and try to prevent victims from verifying the request. Once the money is sent, it is difficult to recover.

Education is key to avoiding these scams. Individuals should independently verify any payment requests, not trust caller ID, and be wary of high-pressure tactics demanding urgent wire transfers.

Fake Invoices

A common scam used by catfishers is sending fake invoices for services or products that were never ordered. The scammer sends an invoice appearing to be from a legitimate business demanding payment. According to a Forbes article, 25% of finance professionals surveyed had experienced fake invoice scams. The invoice may look official, using the target’s logo and appearing to come from a supplier they work with. However, the services or products being billed were never discussed or ordered.

The scammer hopes the recipient will just pay the invoice automatically without verifying if it’s legitimate. Paying these fake invoices can result in thousands of dollars lost. According to International Banker, 95% of firms are aware of fake invoice scams, but many still fall victim. Scrutinizing all invoices carefully before paying is essential. Confirming directly with the supposed sender if an invoice is suspicious prevents falling for the scam. With more operations being digital, fake invoice scams can be easier to perpetrate but also avoid with proper verification protocols.

Staying Safe

Here are some tips to avoid falling victim to catfishing scams:

  • Do reverse image searches on profile pictures to see if they are stolen from somewhere else (
  • Look for signs of overly airbrushed photos or inconsistencies in details (
  • Talk on video chat to confirm someone’s identity before getting too close (
  • Take the relationship slow and be wary of anyone trying to rush intimacy (
  • Ask questions and look for inconsistencies in their story (
  • Be skeptical of any requests for money, gifts, or personal information.
  • Talk to friends or family if you have suspicions about an online relationship.

Staying alert and using common sense is key to avoiding catfishing scams. Take relationships slowly, verify identities, and stop contact if anything seems suspicious.

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