SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — Megan Montenegro says she’s one of many social media influencers who have had their online images stolen and used by dating site scammers.
Montenegro, who models and promotes brands via Instagram, says people have taken her photos from the internet to lure unsuspecting people out of their hard-earned money for at least three years.
“I had a family contact me and they were telling me, ‘we know that this is not really you talking to my father,’” Montenegro told WSAV NOW.
It’s not the only time scamming victims or their relatives have reached out to her. “I’ve actually gotten threats and stuff from people, because they’re like, ‘you had something to do with this,’ you know, ‘you broke my heart,’” she shared. “I really wasn’t included or involved in it in any way.”
Montenegro, who goes by the name “Cammy” online, estimates there have been around 350 fake social media profiles floating around the internet with her images. A quick search for her only legitimate Instagram username, @mnmonte21, shows at least one phony account with a username quite similar to Montenegro’s.
The Fort Stewart resident says she’s heard stories of people being scammed out of thousands of dollars by crooks masquerading as her on the web.
“There have been several circumstances in which men have said that they’ve sent money, and I even had a woman one time tell me that she sent money,” Montenegro said.
“One sent, like, $5,000, and another one sent $13,000, and it really just breaks my heart because people work really hard for their money, and then somebody else out here is scamming them,” the Kentucky native said.
SocialCatfish.com recently released a study on the trend, titled “Catfishing: A Growing Epidemic During COVID-19.”
The website, which helps users search for people and verify information including online profiles, names and phone numbers, used the most recent data from the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center and an interview with a Nigeria-based internet scammer to compile the study.
SocialCatfish.com found that Americans lost $201 million to romance scammers over the past year, more than any other type of scam.
With increased isolation and alone time during the COVID-19 pandemic, a record 26.6 million people have been using dating apps in 2020, making them more susceptible to such scams.
“We’ve talked to a lot of people that have had money stolen from them or have given money, and I’d say 75% to 80% of people don’t report it,” said David McClellan, president of SocialCatfish.com.
“A lot of times what happens is somebody has maybe a small amount of money, like $50 or $250, that they lose, and they’re just embarrassed so they don’t report it, or sometimes it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars, and they’re embarrassed so they don’t report it,” said McClellan, who led the study.
“Sometimes, they’ll go to the local police because they don’t know how they should deal with it, and the police are like, ‘it’s really not illegal to give somebody money, it’s a civil issue,’ and so the police can’t really do anything about that,” McClellan said, adding, “The money that’s reported is a very small amount of money.”
How online dating scammers operate
He says while these scammers come from all over the world, many of them are based out of Lagos, Nigeria. “We’ve tried to dig in and try to understand this, and it’s really just the culture,” McClellan said.
He notes that middle-aged men will groom younger teenagers and young adults to teach them how to lure money from people online.
Their targets include people who are lonely, have experienced personal tragedy, are divorced or widowed and fall in the 35-to-65-year-old age group.
“Those in that age range typically have some sort of money or access to money,” McClellan said.
He says scammers prey on the vulnerabilities of their online victims, chatting with them for hours a day, oftentimes for months, to gain their trust.
“If you’re 65 years old and you’ve woken up every single day to your husband and he passes away, [scammers] take advantage, and they tell you all these wonderful things that your husband told you,” McClellan said.
Other tricks romance scammers have used during the pandemic include:
- Saying they can’t met in person because of the coronavirus
- Needing money for a COVID-19-related emergency, like medical treatment
- Being overly sweet and professing love very quickly
- Attempting to move the online relationship too fast
- Making excuses for not being able to video chat
To aid in their scams, the crooks will use online images from people like Montenegro to fool their victims.
SocialCatfish.com’s study found that of 130 social media influencers surveyed, 112 of them have had their identities stolen during the pandemic.
Montenegro, who also serves in the military, says she’s taken some steps to try protecting her online images from being used, like making her Instagram account private and urging anyone who spots a fake profile with her images to report it immediately.
However, there isn’t legally much she can do to prevent it from happening.
“There used to be a thing called the Stolen Valor Act, and when someone pretended to be in the military, it was a legal offense, but that’s no longer an offense that you can press charges for,” Montenegro said.
“The only legal steps that anyone could take is from my photographers, if they were upset about the pictures [being used], and at one point, they were considering pressing charges,” she said, adding, “But for the most part, it looked like these accounts were not even in the United States and there’s really not much you can do, unfortunately; it’s just report it and move on.”
How to avoid online dating scams
Fortunately, there are ways to spot scammers online, according to McClellan.
“If somebody won’t meet in person and they have bad English, that’s usually a sign, because these scammers live all over the world and will use Google Translate if English isn’t their primary language,” he said.
He advises being wary of anyone asking for any kind of money online, especially within the first 90 days of speaking with them.
“You really have to step back and be logical, like, ‘okay, why is a 35-, or 55- or 65-year-old man or woman that is independent asking me for money out of everybody else they know in their entire life?’” McClellan said.
Scammers may also try to show proof of who they are, like military identification or a passport.
“That’s always a red flag, you normally don’t meet somebody and send them your ID or your passport,” McClellan said.
Another giveaway is avoiding video chats, and even if they agree to them, he recommends being careful.
“Sometimes, these scammers are getting savvier,” McClellan said. “Like if you’re on Instagram and you record a story, they’ll record that, remove the audio out of it, they’ll FaceTime you with that and then they’ll talk over it.”
“They’ll make the video grainy or whatever, so they’re like, ‘oh, I’m having connection issues’ or whatever,” he added.
McClellan and SocialCatfish.com recommend never giving out money online, sharing personal information that could make you vulnerable to identity and other types of fraud, always taking things slowly with an online dating contact and meeting in person or speaking via video chat.
“A lot of times, we find out that these people that are scammed are not dumb people, they just aren’t savvy on the internet,” McClellan said. “We talked to a lady that lost $200,000 a few weeks ago, a super intelligent person, she just didn’t have internet experience.”
View the SocialCatfish.com online dating scam report by visiting this link.