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FTC : 2020 was a record year for online romance scams

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Posted at 4:30 PM, Mar 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-22 19:30:48-04

2020 was a lot of things, including a banner year for online scam artists. The Federal Trade Commission says Americans were scammed out of $304 million in 2020, a 50% increase from 2019.

Tom Ernsting said he's stuck.

“I’m getting 10-20 notifications a day that my identify is being used all over the world,” Ernsting said.

Ernsting needs his social media following to keep his modeling career current, but that huge following has been quite the source of grief.

“I’ve seen these catfishers take my pictures and insert it into their driver's license or passport portfolio. They’re great at Photoshopping, you’d never [think] it was fake,” he said.

Ernsting was catfished, which means people are using his pictures and pretending to be someone they're not online.

“I am the face of a lot of scams,” Ernsting said. “I haven’t fallen victim to a scam, but my identity is used all over the world to scam women, primarily women.”

He's got the emails and letters to prove it. Some of those victims eventually did their homework and found the real man behind the picture. He's heard terrible stories about relationships being broken and hundreds of thousands of dollars lost. One woman reached out from Canada and said, "I just wanted to inform you that if this picture is in fact you, then I wanted you to know that a scammer is using your image to scam women."

“To have your likeness copied, you think ‘wow, that’s nice,’ but then it became overwhelming and represents a sad result of all that’s happening,” Ernsting said.

David McClellan runs a search engine that helps you verify who people say they are online.

“The first thing is make sure you don’t accept friend requests from people you don’t know,” said McClellan, who is the CEO and founder of socialcatfish.com. “This is a billion-dollar industry and people don’t realize it and they think it can never happen to them and most of the people we talk to say ‘I never thought this could happen to me and it did.’”

There are all sorts of scams out there. McClellan says any site that has a chat option can invite unwanted attention.

“They go and prey on people’s emotions,” McClellan said. “They’ll randomly message people, they’ll steal photos from people like Tom and they go and say they’ve fallen in love.”

He advises that people watch out for the signs. It's a huge red flag if someone is asking for money or if they consistently use broken English. In those instances, McClellan said you're likely dealing with a scammer in another country. He recommends that people do their research before engaging in conversation.

“I believe there are groups of people around the world sitting in a room using my pictures and coming up with identities and reaching out to basically women between 45-55, single women,” Ernsting said.

He does what he can by reporting everything he finds, but he wants others to know they need to do their homework before they start interacting with people they don't know online.

“You have to do your legwork,” Ernsting said. “Immediately search the picture, ask to do a video chat, don’t let them put off the opportunity to video chat you.”

The authorities can help but some things are out of U.S. jurisdiction, and the scammers usually know that. The FTC says reverse searches help and it also helps if you ask a lot of questions. You might just find out the truth before it's too late.