Dr. Phil McGraw talks with CBS 2’s Tim McNicholas about romance scams, including catfishing schemes in which people misrepresent themselves in online dating. Such scams have been spiking since the pandemic began.
TIM MCNICHOLAS: We wanted to reach out to you and talk to you about this because you have highlighted so many of these catfishing cases and romance scams over the years. I wanted to get your thoughts on why do you feel it is that people continue to fall for these?
PHIL MCGRAW: You know, Tim, it’s a– it’s a very sad thing, but these are really pros. And they’re so good at this, it’s down to a real art form for them. And they pick on those that are most vulnerable. And usually it is– it’s usually women, but not always. They also pick on men. They’re usually those that have suffered a loss in their life, and they’re lonely.
Oftentimes they are people that are advanced in age, in their 60s or– or older, so they’re kind of at the end of their social arc in their own minds. That’s not true, but in their own minds they are. And so they feel that they’re desperate and they don’t have a lot of options.
And so here they come– here someone comes that’s very attractive because they hijacked these pictures from someone that’s socially desirable. And they start telling the person what they need to hear, what they want to hear. And it’s really need satisfaction selling. They identify someone with a need, and then they fill that need, at least fictionally.
And the person is vulnerable to wanting to hear it so badly that they ignore red flags. They forgo normal skepticism and embrace it because they want so badly for it to be true.
TIM MCNICHOLAS: Yeah, this gentleman who reached out to us, it was a pretty sad story. He has overcome a lot in his life. He was homeless for a while, and he got through that. But now he is a self-described lonely guy. Says he doesn’t have a lot of friends. He’s not very tech savvy.
He talked to this person for eight months, thought he was engaged to this person. It turned out it was a scammer who was stealing pictures from a porn actress and sending him videos, and he thought it was a real connection. That’s kind of the ideal person in the scammer’s mind to target for something like this, right?
PHIL MCGRAW: It is. And you know, Tim, I learned something because I’ve actually gotten a few of these scammers to talk to me anonymously. Of course, they didn’t say, here’s who I am and where I live and all. But a lot of them are based in Nigeria– not all, but a lot of them are based in Nigeria.
And you’ll notice sometimes when you look at their communications, it’s broken English. You know, they use articles wrong, “the” and “and.” And they– it’s just so obvious that they aren’t from where they say they’re from. And I’ve asked them, you know, come on, guys, you’ve got spell check and grammar check on your computer just like everybody else. Why do you not clean that up?
And it was amazing what they said. They said, we use that as a screening device. If they’re willing to overlook that inconsistency, we know we have a live one. So we leave that in there. And if we tell them we’re from Omaha but yet we speak in a way that’s clearly not consistent with that background, we know we have someone that’s gullible enough that it’s worth putting the time in on. They use that as a screening device.
TIM MCNICHOLAS: How do you think this pandemic we’re in has impacted romance scams and catfish cases for the scammers and the victims?
PHIL MCGRAW: Well, we know that loneliness has gone up dramatically. You know, we are– this is something where we’ve told people that we need to be staying isolated and in quarantine. And we’ve told people, that doesn’t mean that you need to be isolated, but that’s what it’s translated into for a lot of people.
We’ve said, stay connected. Be involved electronically, on the phone, FaceTiming or whatever. But we do know that loneliness has really spiked terribly for these folks. So I think it’s increased vulnerability tremendously, and we’ve seen a spike in the catfish activity.
Now, money has dried up some, so I think there are less lucrative targets for some of these people. But you have people that are searching more for companionship, and they get social currency from talking to these people on the internet. And it is a fertile field for the scammers because they say, I can’t meet you now because of the pandemic. And it gives them a year pass to work them for money.
And they’ve got a built-in excuse. I’d love to meet you, but we can’t. I’m locked down in the country. If it wasn’t for that, I would be by your side right now, taking you away from all this and giving you the life of your dreams. So it’s a built-in excuse for these people.
TIM MCNICHOLAS: Just one last thing I wanted to get your thoughts on. You know, if you look on Facebook or Instagram, there’s so many clearly fake profiles out there where they’re using an actress’s photo or an adult actress’s photo, something along those lines. Have you seen that these companies, these social media companies, I mean, should they maybe step up and do something about this and try to eliminate this more so? Or is it just so rampant that you can’t do anything about it?
PHIL MCGRAW: It’s so rampant that, you know, the best protection is always self-protection. And that’s why we do these shows on “Dr. Phil.” We’re trying to educate. And I can’t tell you how many emails I get. I’m talking thousands of emails of people saying, but for the show that I saw you do with so-and-so or such-and-such, I would have been taken in by this.
But I saw that show, and you sometimes list the common things they do. And sure enough, here they were. Stuck in a foreign country, working on an oil rig, got caught in a hospital, needed tax money, they seized their passport– all of those red flags that you list up there, they were doing. And these ScamBusters signs that you list, I did a reverse search on the love letter, and sure enough, there it was on Pig Busters. And immediately I knew.
So I think the best thing we can do is exactly what you’re doing, Tim, is educate your view– your viewers so they can say, look, I need to self-protect here. And God bless you for doing this story in Chicago. Because so many people watch WBBM, and they’ll see this, and it’ll save somebody from getting burned.
PHIL MCGRAW: Well, thank you for sharing all those stories as well. It’s kind of– and that’s kind of– the reason this gentleman reached out to us is because he was embarrassed, but he wanted to spread the word. Have you seen more emails like that over the pandemic, people reaching out with stories like this? Or is it just kind of a steady stream that’s kept on going?
PHIL MCGRAW: It’s a steady stream, but we have seen an increase in it. And it’s so interesting that so often a family member has seen a show and will tell their loved one, look, this is a scam. Look at this– this video from Dr. Phil. This is your story. Look at it.
And– but it’s confirmation bias. The victim believes it so much that they just turn a deaf ear to it. So they say, you know, come talk to Dr. Phil. And once they get there, we put people on the ground in Nigeria or in wherever the person says they’re stuck. And we check out the– the address. We stand in front of the building. We knock on the door.
And, of course, most people don’t have those resources. So it’s good for us to be able to show them, you know, how phony this stuff is. And these people are in a work room, and they’re working 50 or 60 files at a time. And they say, OK, I’ve used poem seven with this one and poem 12 with this one. They have a whole matrix that they’ve worked out.
It’s big business. This is a billion-dollar business. And we’ve spoken to the Nigerian ambassador to the United States. We’ve had them on the show. We’ve– we’ve talked about this. They don’t– Nigerian people, generally speaking, are very nice, hardworking people. There’s just one element there that exploits this. And I hate that it gives Nigeria a bad name because they’re wonderful folks.
TIM MCNICHOLAS: Well, thank you so much for your time, Dr. Phil. I appreciate it.
PHIL MCGRAW: Tim, thanks for doing this story. And any time I can help, just let me know.