How To Protect Yourself Online: A Catfisher On Social Media and What Finding Him Can Teach You

Listen to this post on our podcast on Spotify

Identity Theft…Fake IDs…Cyber Bullying…Catfishing…Cyber Terrorism…these are all ugly things to talk about and definitely not what you want to start a year on, but if you have ever been a victim of it, you know the truth: it can stop life as you know it from then forward. Some victims are so embarrassed by what they let themselves believe that they never get past that dark moment. Unfortunately, I know at least one reader who killed herself after what happened to her. That is why I hope you take very seriously what I am about to tell you and alter your life online going forward.

Cyberbullying and catfishing are a very real and rising crime. In 2019, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) estimated that nearly 20,000 people were victims of some form of online romance or confidence scam. In 2020, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported $304 million in losses to such scams. Statistics on such crimes are astounding and confirm victims and criminals are not who you think they are; this is a problem effecting all age and genders especially men.

Catfishing is deliberately creating a fake character and story to interact with others online, and cyberbullying is abusive behavior done online with or without a fake character to protect the abuser. Cyber terrorism is using the internet to perform acts of terror on others. In my experience, being the victim of catfishing feels like experiencing all three of those things.

How To Protect Yourself Online

  1. Protect Your Images Online
  2. Insist on Video Chatting with Strangers Before You Trust Them
  3. Create Alternate Phone/Email Information To Use Online
  4. Never Send Money or Gift Cards to a Person or Organization You Haven’t Met in Person
  5. Report and Block Abusers When They Are Discovered

Protect Your Images Online

When I was catfished by a man claiming to be in the military, I was really angry at the real man in the photos for not protecting himself more. The truth is that I can just as easily take a screenshot of my friends’ social media accounts today and recreate a persona of them online that isn’t them in five minutes. If you choose to be online, you need to understand that EVERYTHING you put online is there forever no matter if you delete it, so choose wisely what you share–and don’t overshare. The whole world is not your friend, nor is it the place to share every detail of your life. Share the important stuff privately in protected groups or emails not on your newsfeed. Change the status to “friend” or “friend of friend” on most of your posts. If your social media platform offers it, remove the ability for your images to be downloaded. You can’t stop someone screenshotting what you share, but you can stop them from downloading the pictures of your kids and using them as their own.

Insist on Video Chatting with Strangers Before You Trust Them

This is a real big one and it stops the fakers EVERY time–so do this early in your conversations and before you invest your heart or time more than a few days. You can’t make a static image talk, walk, and breathe; video will force the real person to be revealed. Either they shuffle and come up with excuses for why they can’t connect, or they give you a hard time for making rules for them to jump through, or they show up but the person you see doesn’t match the person you have been talking to in text and still images. One catfisher went so far as to string a series of still images together and talk to me like a voice over on a “bad connection”. The most recent attempt asked to call me on WhatsApp. When he did, his voice was clearly not who he claimed to be. He turned out to be “a black boy” most likely from Nigeria instead of the German/Scottish white man in my pictures.

Side Note: It pays to be a student of language, accents, and cultures. Don’t be naïve and take people at their word; know what their claimed culture should look and sound like. If you can’t get them to video chat but you can get them to call, knowing the difference in sounds is enough to often confirm or deny their identity.

Create Alternate Phone/Email Information To Use Online

You live with real people and places you love and protect, so don’t give away your real personal information online. I have a separate Gmail account just for social media and interacting with strangers. On that account, I also have a Google Voice phone number and attached it to WhatsApp and Signal. If someone needs to call, text, or video chat, they have to go through those channels first if I don’t know them AND I am honest about it. I tell people up front that I have to be guarded and don’t share personal information until I know you better. That should be a deterrent, but it is a worm on a hook to predators. They don’t mind the chase if they think their is a prize at the end of it.

Never Send Money or Gift Cards to a Person or Organization You Haven’t Met in Person

Not everyone is going to ask you for money, but a lot of them are in it for the long haul to get you to offer it. There are a lot of different reasons why people catfish, and it isn’t all just money either. Some do it for emotional reasons. Others do it just to mess with you. The last guy that did it to me said he “wanted to try it” and “needed help” with financial costs. Unfortunately, some parts of the world treat catfishing like a job and operate in teams to get as many people on the hook at the same time as possible.

Report and Block Abusers When They Are Discovered

Don’t feel sorry for them when you catch them in their lies; they are counting on that! A novice liar is easy to spot. They are over anxious, have broken English, and there are all sorts of holes in their stories. An experienced catfisher is well polished and in it for the long haul. He/she creates a believable lie with enough images and encouraging words in proper English to make you think they are legit. They even get the time zone differences right! They are perpetual students of you. They watch your social media, know what makes you tick, and see your bleeding heart to rescue people from the error of their ways. They are counting on you caring enough to give them what they want even after they are discovered–enough people have done it already to make them think you will too.

DON’T CONTINUE TALKING! Screenshot your conversation and images for proof. Then block and archive them. Report them to your social media or whatever platform they met you on. I had so many catfishers to report to one dating website that they ended up telling me I was “too picky” and needed to “lower my standards”. Most social media platforms take your reports into consideration and act on it following an investigation. At Daily Testify, reports are taken seriously and abusers are shut down quickly with less hesitation than every other site on the market.

There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

How To Heal From An Attack

  1. Allow Yourself Time to Cry
  2. Educate Yourself to be Better Prepared Next Time
  3. Let Trusted Friends Know and Reach Out For Their Support
  4. Seek Professional Counseling for any Deeper Issues
  5. Get Back on the Proverbial Horse

Allow Yourself Time to Cry

It is not easy being human. Sometimes the cost is so high we just want to ball up and choose to hate the world or leave it. Neither option is a good one. No matter how many times I have been through it, it still hurts to be catfished. Though I didn’t let myself trust or give anything really personal away to the last two scammers, I did have the hope they were real and that hope deferred made my heart sick. It’s okay to cry. Let yourself express those emotions. I’ve gone on walks through the rain-soaked countryside talking to God and crying till I found peace again. He met me there, and he can meet you too. Allow yourself the room to feel, but don’t let the bad experiences close the gift of your loving heart.

Educate Yourself to be Better Prepared Next Time

We don’t live in a sinless world where you can take strangers at their word and trust them. The people you trust and invest in should be people who earned your trust over time. Learn more about the ways of the world and online community through organizations like The CyberSmile Foundation that help teach you safe ways to interact online. Read reputable articles like the ones linked in this story and on our blog. Begin to see yourself as less of a victim and more of a warrior loading up for battle. Knowledge is an arsenal that never fades or requires a concealed carry permit.

Let Trusted Friends Know and Reach Out For Their Support

Most victims have people in their lives that love them, yet they feel isolated. Whether they physically live alone or they are in a house with other people, some need in their heart was being missed and that need was the hope the abuser claimed to fill. As public as I am online, none of my abusers read my blog or claimed to know anything from it. Unless they are stalkers, abusers don’t put much effort into chasing you past your social media, yet–in that moment–you think they are the only person in the world that really cared about you. That is the opposite of the truth. You don’t need to tell the whole world like I am literally doing here, but you need to tell someone what happened to you. You can’t navigate the dark thoughts alone. Share your experience with someone you trust and lean on them for emotional support.

Seek Professional Counseling for any Deeper Issues

Depending on how deeply connected you were to your abuser, you may need to talk to a professional. This may also apply if you knew the abuser a few days but have deeper baggage to work through. Sometimes being vulnerable emotionally reveals places in our hearts and experiences that we haven’t dealt with and didn’t know how to. There is no shame in seeking help to work through it. In fact, that is the brave thing to do. It is the ones who needed it but didn’t pursue it that end up caving to the dark thoughts and ending their life.

Get Back on the Proverbial Horse

No matter how many times you have been the target victim, it is not an excuse to hide forever from social media. Maybe you need to learn better practices and change what you do online, but you don’t have to leave it completely to be safe.

I don’t look to social media for my real world connections. The people I trust the most are not people I met online, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have meaningful relationships with people online. I met a couple online last year that are sitting in a country on the other side of the world right now reading this. We haven’t met in person, yet I consider them friends.

I get messages almost daily from strangers on my social media platforms, and almost all of them are men. Instead of feeling flattered by the attention and remaining vulnerable to every possible risk, I have to be wise enough to realize they could be scammers. I treat social media as a marketing space and share what I do there, so I will friend strangers on social media, but I follow my own advice to stay safe. If someone turns out to be a predator, I report them.

Maybe someday the bad ones will hurt less. What I share next is to show you just how real this can be. The screenshots below were captured over roughly three days of communication with a catfisher that contacted me through Daily Testify. Read on to see how I caught him in his lies and ended it.


Following this conversation on a private email channel, I screenshot everything, archived the message, and blocked the person. I then went to Daily Testify and reported him, stored the images elsewhere, and deleted them from my phone. Seeing the images later can cause setbacks in healing.

If you have been a victim of a scam, waste no time in reporting it and moving on. Don’t let them steal your joy or make you think you are the problem. Seek God! Let Him fill the places that you lack, and give Him the responsibility to play matchmaker with your heart.

I Turned My Soldier In To The Army Criminal Investigation Command

When I met Christopher Smith Williams, he was stationed overseas in Kabul, Afghanistan. He was a military officer working as a Bomb Specialist there. He had already served his full term in the Army; this was a short term contractor gig. He was looking for a new life and wanted to find a woman to settle down and build it with.
I wasn’t very serious about him at first. I was still talking to other guys online and made that clear to him. None of the guys liked that but I wanted to be sure that whomever I chose to talk to exclusively would be a guy I felt compatibility with in core issues. Chris wanted me to be exclusive but he was understanding too. He would ask me about the other guys and let me tell him about his competition.
At one point, I got really spooked by one of the other guys because he asked me if I had a credit card. I immediately thought he was trying to scam me, and I told Chris about it.
Without even telling him, Chris knew I needed to see his face. He went 50 miles outside of camp to get to a safe room and video call me that night from a secure room.
The video was scratchy and wouldn’t connect right, but I caught a glimpse of him. He was even more handsome and humorous than his pictures implied. I couldn’t believe he would go out of his way to do something like that for me just because he knew I needed it. I was smitten.

Things Got Serious

I found myself on pins and needles to hear from him. I was always worried that silence meant something happened to him. He would affirm me that he felt “very comfortable” in his job and that “God had protected him this far” and would continue to do so till the end. He had less than a year left on his contract, so I determined to turn my fears to prayers. Every time I was scared for him, I prayed. He appreciated that. The angst I felt about his safety spoke volumes to me about my feelings for him too. Chris was quickly rising to the top of the pack, and I was ready to be exclusive with him.
Once I made the choice to just focus on Chris and let the other guys go, things got serious fast. Christopher Smith Williams really pursued me. He was texting me every day and talking about deep heart issues and values. We talked about stuff that mattered not just casual flirtations. I was attracted to him in so many ways. He was tall, athletic, had a good job, and shared my core values. He accepted me just as I was and respected my boundaries. He found me attractive and wanted intimacy with me but was willing to wait for sex. He was coming to meet me and, if all went well, we would be planning a wedding soon. He didn’t always say things right, but he sounded like someone worth my time and attention. He sounded perfect.

Things Got Fishy

I was caught up in a whirlwind romance and we were making plans to see each other in a month. I put together stuff for a care package and asked him for his address. He gave me an email address and said I had to get on an approved list with his commander. I thought that was understandable. Then he asked me to just send him a gift card because it would be easier to help him “get his needs”. He claimed care packages were intercepted by terrorists over there, and Amazon gift cards would be easier to use and get through the mail. He also claimed that Trump was holding his pay and he couldn’t buy all his needs.
His story smelled fishy enough that I contacted some active duty military friends and asked some questions. I also contacted a friend who would have done some work with his unit over there. They gave me specific things to ask and look out for. All of my friends seemed a hair trigger from pummeling Chris into next year, and I found myself having to filter and defend him already. They were mad about him, and I didn’t know why.

When I asked the questions my friends gave me, Chris gave me specifics that added up. But there was still something off: every time I asked him to explain his job, the response came back in broken English.

Trust but verify (him).

–J. Tallent

I didn’t want to doubt Chris, but I had never really met him.

I didn’t know where to start to verify that what Chris told me was true, so I just immersed myself in as much military culture as I could find online. I read and watched countless videos and articles online about being the significant other of a military person. I searched constantly. I thought I was learning how to be a better mate for Chris.

Red Flags

I looked up some of the exact things that Chris had told me about himself. He had given me exact rank and unit information, but when I looked it up, the units didn’t match the divisions he claimed they were from. Furthermore, all of my active duty friends assured me that his rank did not make sense after 20 years of service.

I Googled the exact wording of his job descriptions and my heart sank. Each description had been taken from online websites such as Chron.com (an online newspaper that has no official tie to the military). Here is one of the descriptions I was able to prove was plagiarized.

Christopher and I had been chatting every day through Google Hangouts because he said it was easier than texting his satellite phone. I used a third-party search and searched his phone number. That’s when I discovered I had been texting a VOIP most likely out of Florida not Kabul, Afghanistan.

I Googled his name and found a picture of a romance scammer by his name. I discredited it because it didn’t look like him, but it did give me pause. None of the things people were saying about this Chris were what I was hearing online…but he did look a lot more like the guy I saw in the video.

Stolen Valor

I would have never imagined that I would become the target of a romance scam going after both my heart and my wallet. Realizing that Chris was most-likely a lie made me sick to my stomach. I didn’t even know that stolen valor (when a scammer poses as a military person) was a thing, and when it happened to me, I felt guilty. I felt guilty because I come from an Army background; I should have been able to see the lies.

If you Google the term, you will find out a lot of information about Stolen Valor. You’ll see that a 2013 law was put into place making it a Federal crime for “an individual to fraudulently hold oneself out to be a recipient of any of several specified military decorations or medals with the intent to obtain money, property, or other tangible benefit.

You will find veteran organizations fighting by identifying fakers and notifying the public of this crime. The US Army–a branch of our military that is copied by fakers a lot–is aware of the crime and are trying to inform the public about it. Unfortunately, it isn’t hard to fake military service and we tend to fall for it in our ignorance of what it takes to live the military life.

No wonder my friends were ready to pummel Chris; they smelled a rat. They were respectful of my tender heart, but they knew enough to know that I wasn’t seeing the truth from this guy.

It takes the heart of a Warrior to find deception and take it down.

stolenvalor.com

How To Catch A Scammer (updated 7-11-2019)

  1. If you think they are legit, have them email you from their .mil military email address. It’s pretty simple. If you are military at all, you have one…and you have it for life. The military does not use .com addresses. Chris never responded to this one, but if he was legit, his email would have confirmed his story. The address adjusts to whatever roll you are currently in, so it would have confirmed he was a military contractor. It never goes away, so the lack of compliance to this simple request was a sign that Chris was a scammer.
  2. If you think they are legit and they claim to be overseas, have them give you their APO address. Service members have special addresses to send things to when they are deployed. It’s not a physical address because they can’t give you that information; it’s like having a PO Box but different. If they are legitimately serving, they have one. Also, there is no such thing as needing to be on an approved list to send a package. Care packages are sent all the time to troops from people they don’t know that just want to show that they care. It makes no sense to only be able to receive stuff from approved senders. When I asked Chris for his APO address, he told me I would have to contact his commander and get on an approved list. The address for his commander was a .com address. The military does not use .com addresses. This was another sign that Chris was a scammer.
  3. Learn the lingo of military life and know more than they do about it. Scammers know they are doing the wrong thing long before you do, and they are counting on you being ignorant about what all that military stuff means. The more ignorant you are, the more they can get out of you. However, be careful not to correct them or give them more information. If they are scammers, they are most likely learning from you how to be better at what they do. Most scammers are believed to be working in teams in Nigeria doing this as their job. They rely on what they can get off the internet and from you to perfect their schemes, but the internet is faulty especially in issues of rank.
  4. Enlist your military friends for advice. Going off-book is the best thing I did to figure out the truth about Chris because nobody knows the current state of the military like an active service member. Ask someone that you know in the service if what you are being told sounds right. If you don’t know anyone in active service, do deeper research online on official military websites and blogs.
  5. If you still can’t find the answers you need, reach out to some military spouses. Military spouses are incredibly resourceful; if they don’t know the answer, they know where to find it. I had one military spouse friend arrange for a conference call with her husband to help answer my military questions.
  6. Educate yourself on the common lines. One thing the Internet is good for is getting the word out about something, and there are A LOT of things posted about romance scammers. The Army has been warning people for years against romance scams perpetuated in the name of a service member. Read their 2014 article here. Find out more about romance scams on non-profit sites and blogs dedicated to recovering from scammers. You can find actual claims they are using and see if what you are being told is a common thread being used by scammers. I caught some scammers even going so far as to use the same descriptions in multiple dating profiles and conversation threads.
  7. Stop entertaining them; report them. If you’ve gone far enough to care at all about this profile, this is the hardest thing to do. You really want to believe them. Even when you know they are liars, you might think you are doing good to talk to them because at least you are keeping them from hurting someone else. Their is an art to lying, and you are just helping them master it. Scammers take everything you tell them and use it to fine tune their craft. Fraudsupport.org and Army.mil recommend that you report a faker to the place you found him/her and to proper authorities. Furthermore, they suggest you follow procedures to secure yourself online. If you are a victim, file a claim today.

Healing From Victimization

It is sickening to think that some of these pictures are real soldiers who either died in action, went missing, or had their identities stolen AND women are still upset thinking a soldier did them wrong!

No one expects to be a victim. Whether you gave this person your heart, your trust, your wallet, or all of the above, it is going to take time to heal. Allow yourself the room to feel anger and discouragement, but don’t give up on life, love, and humanity in general. There are still a lot of good people out there in the world, and there are still legitimately lonely hearts looking for love online. Don’t give up hope completely. Just be cautious. Remember: trust, but verify.