“Sweetheart scams” steal more than $80,000

By Sydni Anderson, Staff writer

You’ve seen it on TV, online and maybe in real life. With the advent of the internet, love games have been taken to a new level of predation. Two weeks ago, the Kentucky Attorney General’s office released a letter warning of “Sweetheart Scams.” According to the note, online dating scams stole more than $80,000 from Kentuckians last year.

Attorney General Andy Beshears said the new year and Valentine’s Day attract scammers who want to exploit those seeking new friendships and relationships. In addition, the note provided a list of red flags for people to be aware of. These warning signs caution against a person who claims to be in love very early on, refuses to meet in person, demands the relationship be kept secret and urges for money and giftcards to be sent overseas.

If you watch the MTV show “Catfish,” some of this may sound familiar. “Catfish” refers to a person who lures someone into an online relationship with a fictional persona. The term was coined after the documentary that started the TV show.

Jana Hackathorn, assistant professor in the Murray State psychology department, said catfish are lonely people with social anxieties, a low self-esteem and a need to belong. She said most catfish pretend to be someone else, a person who is living a fabulous but fictitious life and are successful in that endeavor.

“Their behavior is reinforced because when they created the false persona, someone fell in love with it,” Hackathorn said. “Why wouldn’t you want to continue to be that person?  Why would you want to go back to your old boring life when you have a person online who is writing you love poems and falling in love with your persona?”

Hackathorn said human beings have a fundamental need to belong.

“It is who we are as social beings, and it drives the vast majority of our behaviors, even the negative ones,” Hackathorn said. “It’s a complicated construct, but at the end of the day, it is what motivates us. The need for romantic connections stems from that same need to belong mixed in with some very biological and evolutionary needs, as well. It’s a Molotov cocktail for love, so to speak.”

Just as a need to belong can motivate catfish, it also contributes to people being susceptible to scams and catfishing.

In his warning, Beshear expressed the importance of sharing caution. “We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers – and this is especially true when it comes to helping our friends and family avoid falling victim to a scam,” said Beshear. “I encourage everyone to call or visit with those they care for this month, especially younger or older relatives who may live alone or be lonely, and discuss scams and help them to know the common warning signs.”