There’s no getting away from scamming these days, facilitated as it is by much of our lives – both business and personal – taking place online. Sometimes victims of scams part with eye-watering sums of cash, but others face deeper collateral damage, such as heartbreak, loss and a lingering sense of deep mistrust.
Most of us at this stage will be familiar with the term catfishing – creating a fake profile in order to romantically dupe someone – even those for whom online dating is an alien concept.
The Tinder Swindler, Netflix’s true-crime documentary about convicted fraudster Simon Leviev and his many victims, exposed this phenomenon in full, shocking detail. However, recently there have been some stories closer to home which highlighted the scourge of the scammers.
For example, Senator Mark Daly found himself inadvertently hitting the headlines last weekend after it emerged that his pictures were being used on a Tinder profile to scam women out of a fortune.
The story first broke on US website Stuff, which revealed that images of a real estate agent from Dallas called Mark Cain and an Irish senator (Daly), were being used to con women out of millions of dollars, with two New Zealand women in particular parting with $500,000 each after falling for the men in almost-identical cons.
Daly said he was ‘horrified’ to learn his images were being used to defraud people, stating that he was ‘genuinely shocked’ at the matter. When told by Stuff about the women’s plight, Cain had a similar reaction, stating: ‘I feel very shocked, upset, and definitely sorry for the women who were taken in by a story that was combined with a photo of me.’ Cain added that he was gay and ‘not even after women’.
But it’s not always women who are the victims of these often elaborate and long-running scams. A case in point is the ongoing ‘GAA catfish’ story, which has been the subject of recent episodes of the hugely popular 2 Johnnies podcast – and doesn’t look to be going away any time soon.
The saga has captured the attention of listeners across the country after co-host Johnny B shared his own experience of being catfished by a woman on Instagram in the May 16 podcast episode.
It’s a complicated one to keep track of, but essentially, Johnny B had spent weeks chatting to the ‘stunning’ Cora O’Donovan from Limerick, exchanging voice notes and numerous texts. Initially connecting through Instagram, her profile was littered with posts, videos of her dancing and Instagram stories. With over 15,000 followers, he believed she had to be genuine – except she was not.
This turned out to be just one of several accounts that Johnny suspects to be run by Nicky (not her real name), Cora O’Donovan’s ‘best friend’, who it transpires has hoodwinked scores of GAA players, media personalities and even a garda.
At the time of printing, up to 100 people had been directly targeted by the catfish’s fake accounts, according to the podcast hosts.
‘I knew I would get slagged but it’s important to talk about this kind of thing and warn people that you can’t always believe who is behind a social media profile,’ Johnny B admitted.
‘It didn’t bother me that this has happened to me, but I know people who have been through similar and they are really down about it.’
One woman, called Joanne for the purposes of this feature, had a similar experience to Johnny, when she met a man called Padraig on Tinder following a split from a long-term partner.
‘I was just dipping my toe into the dating game after a long time,’ she explains. ‘We matched and Padraig messaged me first. He was gorgeous – tall, dark and handsome – but I actually didn’t reply for a couple of weeks as I felt he was a little young. He said he was 36 and I’m 41.’
It was only after Padraig messaged again that curiosity got the better of Joanne and she replied.
‘He was warm and friendly, told me he lived in north Dublin in a spot very close to where I grew up,’ she recalls. ‘He knew a lot of the same places I would have gone to for drinks.’
Padraig told Joanne that he worked for a beverage company that was based in Cork, and that he was a father of two boys. ‘I thought he looked very fresh-faced to be a dad but he said he had been with his wife since they were teenagers,’ Joanne recalls.
‘To be honest, something wasn’t quite sitting well with me but he seemed so warm, articulate and genuine I continued to chat with him.’
A couple of days later, Padraig told Joanne a heart-breaking story about his past. ‘He told me his wife died while pregnant,’ Joanne said. ‘I was completely stunned and gave him my number so we could meet and talk about it all.’
However, a few minutes later, Joanne spoke to a friend and started to realise that Padraig was not all he seemed to be.
‘I was wondering aloud why he hadn’t mentioned his wife’s stage of pregnancy, or what had happened to the third baby. Also, he had randomly given me his address – even though I hadn’t asked for it – and when I put it into Google, his house didn’t seem to exist.’
In the end, Padraig gave himself away. A person of the same name tracked Joanne down on LinkedIn, so Joanne returned the favour – and on inspecting his LinkedIn details, found that Padraig was not who he had purported to be.
‘He looked completely different, and I didn’t find him one bit attractive.
‘He was way younger again and actually worked for a cattle feed company in the Midlands,’ Joanne says. ‘It’s funny now when I’m telling the story but it wasn’t at the time. I felt really exploited – thank god he never rang my phone, and that no intimate texts or images were exchanged.’
At a work night out some weeks later, Joanne retold the story of Padraig – and amazingly, one of her colleagues knew of a girl who had also encountered the fraudster. ‘In a way I was relieved, that it wasn’t just me who gave him the time of day initially.
‘I still wonder how many others he’s conned – and possibly hurt – along the way.’
Joanne’s story is increasingly common, given the growing use of dating apps – an estimated 40% of new romantic relationships are developed on such sites, and more people will meet their partner online than offline by 2035 if current trends continue. Social media has opened a lot of opportunities for hacking, scams and taking advantage of others, and this extension into the world of online dating is no surprise.
So if not for financial gain, why do people do it, when it means any hope of true romance is doomed?
‘Some experts believe that the dynamic of catfishing is an extreme form of insecurity,’ says psychotherapist Dr Colman Noctor. ‘The person might consider themselves unattractive or not good enough and use the images and identity of another to overcome their perceived shortcomings. Others perhaps view it as a fantasy of control and being able to manipulate the feelings and actions of other people, especially well-known or powerful people. There may also be an element of “revenge” or “avenge”, especially when the targets are successful, powerful or publicly admired victims,’ he concurs.
In fact, says Dr Noctor, there is a spectrum when it comes to catfishing – and given half the chance, we might all be a little guilty of it.
‘We are all neurologically wired for connection,’ explains Dr Noctor. ‘The reward centre in the brain can cloud our judgment and studies have proven that romantic experiences release dopamine in the brain which can trigger compulsive behaviours and irrational decision making.
‘Catfishers take advantage of this vulnerability and like other scams see an opportunity to exploit for their own gain. Most dating rituals involve putting your best foot forward and hiding your deficits.
‘The online interaction allows for these versions of the “hoped for self” to be more elaborate and continue for longer. I imagine that the dynamic of catfishing for many may not always start out as such but develop as the layers of deceit are added,’ he explains. ‘The value system espoused by the online world is “everything is possible” and “you can be anything you want to be” and its whole mantra is about “connecting people”.
‘When you mix all these value systems into culture, it’s not surprising that a dynamic such as catfishing emerges.’
In essence, the online world allows us to become an avatar version of ourselves, shinier, better looking and more successful – just like Cora and Padraig seemed to be.
‘The online space allows for a remove from our physical body. As much as we may like to be taller, prettier or even the opposite gender, face to face communication does not permit it. But the creativity within the online world allows a much more elaborate departure from our own identity and offers a unique opportunity to road test these identities in the virtual world,’ says Dr Noctor.
Talking on part two of the GAA Catfish podcast, psychologist Louize Carroll says the propensity for online deception is also thanks to social media decreasing our moral code.
‘The potential for anonymity and lure and seduction of that might mean we are more likely to edit the truth,’ she says.
Carroll also cited erotomania – a condition that happens when someone is fixated on the idea that another person is intensely in love with them – as a possible catalyst for catfishers like Cora.
‘It’s rooted in feelings so dissimilar to the resources within you, there’s such a gap between your self-worth and the sense of yourself and this person that you see in the media, that your psyche begins to close it. You start to think that you can have a relationship with this person, and this person might even be in love with you.
‘The payoff, even if this behaviour looks dysfunctional, is that [in Cora’s case] she gets connection with you, she gets communication with you. So regardless of it not being rooted in the truth she’s getting messages and attention, she’s showering you with attention, she’s curated a persona that reflects the things that make you feel good,’ Carroll continued.
‘If a person is trying to be somebody else they are moving away from who they actually are. That might even become natural. They might reason that it’s not a big deal and start to justify their behaviour.’
The pandemic may have helped breed catfishers too. There’s evidence to suggest online scamming behaviour increased by over 20% over lockdown so it’s reasonable to assume the same trend existed for catfishing episodes.
‘It’s important to remember that the logistics of maintaining a lie are very time-consuming and so with the lockdown offering us nothing but time, this may be a factor in why it’s become so prevalent,’ says Dr Noctor.
Some people may be more susceptible to being a victim of a catfish than others, says Carroll, or ‘different people can be at different stages of their lives’.
‘So if you were in a more vulnerable place you might have more of a need to be seen, to be emotionally connected; you might be wounded and healing and way more vulnerable to be taken advantage of. So it’s important to have a network to point it out, to call it out.’
It’s this very human vulnerability which was behind Johnny B’s decision to highlight the catfish story in the first place, as he explained on the podcast. ‘The experience didn’t really bother me but I had spoken on the phone to at least 12 men who had been emotionally exploited by these fake accounts. They went to the guards and PSNI as intimate photos were involved and were told probably nothing could be done. So I felt compelled to speak out.’
Both victims – and catfishers – will have varying levels of emotion afterwards, depending on the length of time spent in deception and how the fake relationship evolved.
‘The conversation is how do you come back into alignment with who you are because you likely feel a little broken and unworthy at your core so how do we get back to who you are and start to build from there?’ says Carroll, speaking about how a catfish could be helped by those around them.
‘Do you want a relationship in the long term, do you want fulfilment in your life, a real relationship? Then you have to start discovering who you are,’ she explained.
‘It can have a significant impact on self-worth and can make victims deeply question their judgment and ability to make decisions,’ says Dr Noctor of the impact of online deception.
‘If we lose confidence in our judgment, the world immediately becomes a scarier place. It’s like finding out that your best defence doesn’t work properly and this will undoubtedly have impacts on future relationships and the person’s capacity for trust.’
Indeed, I feel like Johnny B, Joanne and the many other victims of catfishers will find it difficult to ever trust again.