Gone (Cat)Fishing: 5 Signs to Spot A Love Scam

In my past life, I’m a known tech whiz. I get paid to advise companies on their social media, I research their competition, and build their websites. In other words, my Google skills and foresight paid the bills. So in my defence (and arrogance), I assumed I would be the last person to fall for an online scam. Until I did – because they found a chink in my armour.

As you might notice, there’s been a lot of friendly police reminders popping up around bus stops and train stations on avoiding online scams and especially on dating websites. It is cuffing season after all – with the holidays approaching it’s natural for people to start reminiscing and be hopeful about finding love and partnering up. Unfortunately romance scammers are aware of this too.

It’s really easy to dismiss victims of an online scam. Psstt, it could never happen to me. I’m too smart, I’m too logical, I’m not some sad lonely recluse. That’s what I thought too and despite this story being a part of my personal history that I would really rather leave behind, it’s worth sharing if it can help someone in a similar situation.

This is the story of how I got catfished and the signs to spot in a love scam.

It had been almost six months since I started an account on Tinder and apart from Mr Time Filler and a couple of flirting buddies, I haven’t actually had a real date. My new job was taking a toll on my social life and existential dread was creeping in as I would lie in bed under the glare of the phone screen and swipe, swipe, swipe before falling asleep.

It was his brown doe eyes and smile on top of Machu Picchu that first perked my interest. The biceps in the muscle tee was a distinct second. He was cute. Swipe.


Ooo, nice. Should I say hi? I guess I’m the last one to swipe so yes. He answered almost immediately. “Hello, how are you?”

I forgot how our initial conversation went but what I distinctly remembered that night was when I asked him about his story and why he was dating online, he stopped replying. Alright, I thought, Maybe he got bored.

But the familiar Tinder trill played while I was in the office the next day. I glanced at my phone. Several messages from him. I told myself I’ll read them when I’m on my commute back home but I was already starting to smile to myself at my laptop.

I opened the app and found an essay of his life story. For the purpose of this article, let’s call him The Scammer (TS).

He was an only child, Spanish, grew up in Brooklyn, got his heart broken a year ago from a serious relationship, moved to Malaysia and worked as an underwater welder. It’s a dangerous job but pays the bills and takes care of his elderly mother back home.

To anyone else, the bullshit radar might have started beeping at that moment. To a recovering love-aholic, it just sounded like the beginning of a kindred spirit.

1. Deleting his account

TS called me the next day from a Malaysian number. I was surprised that someone would actually call and get to know me the old-fashioned way versus the ease and anonymity of texting back and forth. He said he was tired of playing games with women on the app and he preferred hearing their voices to decide if they were serious or not. He felt something different with me – it felt so right to him that he decided to go ahead and delete his account off Tinder after getting my phone number.

How refreshing, I thought. How flattering. Again, with my blinkers on from the bullshit.

Sign 1: Online love scammers are known for this modus operandi of deleting their profile from a dating app once they’ve found a target. This allows them to establish rapport by talking to their target on the phone in real-life so they can charm them using a script. This also helps them move on different accounts to avoid being flagged and reported by other users/targets on the dating platform.

2. The Backstory

Let’s rewind back to when he poured out his life story after a day of going silent. There were a few things that caught my eye about his story that in retrospect, was a honeytrap he laid. The attributes that stood out:

• He’s from NY
• He’s foreign and specifically Latin-American
• He just got out of a serious long-term relationship.
• He’s an only child who’s providing for his elderly parent
• He lives just across in Malaysia
• He works a dangerous job in underwater welder but pays the big bucks

Let’s examine it again through my rose-tinted glasses.

• He’s from NY
What a coincidence, I lived there for 10 years!

• He’s foreign and specifically Latin-American
Weird…my ex boyfriend was Colombian and I know Spanish too!

• He just got out of a serious long-term relationship.
So did I!

• He’s an only child who’s providing for his elderly parent
Awww… what a filial son, but it must be lonely to be the sole caregiver.

• He lives just across in Malaysia
What a pity that we can’t meet in person for a coffee but Malaysia’s not so far.

• He works a dangerous job in underwater welder but pays the big bucks
I’ve no idea what that is but it sounds impressive.

It almost sounds fated that we’re so alike that we’re destined to meet right? Well that’s because it was precisely designed that way. TS made it intentional that we were alike and shared similar stories and values. Remember how he disappeared for a day?

That’s because he was researching his target, me. In the same way that I would look at a company’s digital footprint, TS was looking at my public social media profile and mentions of my name online. From looking at my photos, captions and cross-referencing dates, he could tell that I used to live in NY, I had a boyfriend whose family I visited in Colombia, I was learning Spanish and the last photo I had with him was almost 2 years ago. He made the deduction that I must be single then. By gleaning all the available information I’ve put up, he was able to figure out a convincing persona that would be attractive to me.

Sign 2: What about the other lies TS made up about living in Malaysia and working as an underwater welder? These are actually very common backstories created by online scammers to lure you in. They are usually working or currently traveling overseas and have well-paying and ‘exotic’ jobs like being on an oil rig, military or businessmen in a foreign country. It helps to achieve the idea that they’re worldly, adventurous personas who are well-off and a good catch. It also means that they’re ‘lonely’ and looking for a soulmate and unfortunately can’t meet a good partner because they’re always on the move. Unless that partner is you…..

3.. Love-Bombing

That’s where the love-bombing starts. After our first call, he would text me a couple of times a day at work and while I’m on my commute home, he would give me a call in the evening. His conversations would center around my day, never his. Even if I ask, he would give generic descriptions and say “Oh, I work on an oil rig with only men for months at a time, it’s boring.” He would start peppering the conversations with “This sounds crazy, but I really like talking to you..”, “You’re so nice to talk to..”, “I really enjoy our conversations”.

And I was flattered by the attention. No one else was calling me to ask about my day. He’d sent more pictures where he was “working out at the gym” so I was definitely attracted. This hot guy who seems to share so much in common with me and enjoys talking to me? I started getting butterflies when his name popped up on my phone.

Want to know the kicker? It’d only been 3 days. Yes, THREE days. Then on the 4th day, as I was walking home in the dark and chatting with him about New York, he says “Hey, I think I love you.”

I stopped in my tracks at that point. I remember asking “Wait, what did you say?” He mumbles sheepishly, “I think I’m falling in love with you.”

Even as I type this out right now, I’m cringing inwardly at my naïveté. How did I miss this even though my initial gut feeling made me stop and ask him to repeat it?

But I was lonely. I was 33 then and had gotten out of a relationship with someone whom I wanted to start a family with. I still believed in love but I didn’t actually believe I could have it. So there it seemed, a present wrapped up in a bow in front of me.

I took a deep breath, “I guess I’m falling for you too…”

He dropped the hook. I took the bait.

Sign 3: Love-bombing is, as described by Healthline.com, “when someone overwhelms you with loving words, actions, and behavior as a manipulation technique.” Usually done at the start of relationships, the partner lavishes the target with gifts, compliments, calls and basically attention in order to draw you into their trust and throw you off balance. Often used as a technique by narcissists who then go on to switch to the other extreme (i.e. acting cold and reducing their attention to you) which then makes you question if you’ve done something wrong to warrant the behavioral change and then start chasing them instead. It’s also usually coupled with gaslighting in order to manipulate the power dynamic.

In the context of an online scammer however, love-bombing achieves the same effect of creating the intoxicating feeling of falling in love for the target. Online scammers look for targets of a similar profile. They’re usually older women who are single or divorced, and are relatively independent. Why? They tend to close you off from your friends and family so it’s easier for them when they do The Ask. They’ll make it sound like it’s fate and no one else will understand our love story. From our conversations, TS could tell that while I’m close with my family and friends, I don’t necessarily go to them when I need an opinion. He was very strategic and predatory. Imagine a single antelope being isolated from a herd by a lioness, that’s how online scammers operate with their love-bombing.

4. The Ask

He asked for money on the 7th day. And when he did, my heart sank. Shit, I think he’s a scammer.

It started innocuously. He left a miscall. Then a couple of hurried texts.

I’m so sorry babe, I just had an accident on the rig. I’m ok but my equipment is shot and I need to fix it to complete the job. But it’s going to cost US$3000 and I don’t get paid until next week, do you think you could help me out?

My bullshit radar finally woke up.

Omg, you were in an accident?? Are you ok, have you seen the doctor?

He dismissed it quickly over text. Yes, yes, I’m ok. No big deal.

You broke your drill? Is it under warranty? Can you call the service center?

Oh babe, this isn’t a vacuum cleaner. There’s no service center, nearest one is in KL and I’m on an offshore island. I need to fly in just for that and fix it.

Can’t your company cover it? It’s for work and you need it to finish the job right?

I’m an independent contractor, I have to provide my own equipment. If I don’t get it done, I don’t get paid.

I don’t have that kind of money right now, don’t they pay you well?

Come on, can’t you even send me a bit? Maybe $1000 or $500? I thought we had something.. I thought you love me.

And with each answer, the bile from my stomach started to rise and my heart was sinking lower and lower.

Ah fuck, I’m getting scammed. I feel so stupid right now. No way, maybe it’s just a coincidence. Maybe he really did have an accident, broke his equipment and needs me – I mean, it can happen to anyone right?

Sign 4: The Ask is pretty straightforward. Once the scammer feels that the time is right, there will be a sob story of an accident, a mishap, a mistake, a tragedy that unfortunately befell on them and all it requires is a transfer of money to fix it. But their account is frozen, their wallet was stolen, the foreign bank is corrupt, the hospital won’t accept their credit cards, they haven’t gotten paid – basically every excuse in the book but they promise they’ll pay you back because well, they’re rich and you love them, and you know they won’t run away because you have a future together.

Sometimes the scam is slightly different. They could ask if they could send over some money to your account that needs to be transferred to another account. Or if you could receive some packages on their behalf because it’s so hard to receive mail while they travel. That’s because they’re laundering money from the other targets they’ve scammed. That way it’s harder to trace the scammer’s original account.

5. Blackmail

What happened next? As we’ve established, this isn’t TS’s first rodeo. He’s been in the scamming game and was actually quite good at psychological hacks. He knew from my questions and hesitation that I was starting to suspect it wasn’t all moon and stars with us. He backed off.

It’s ok sweetie, I fixed it. I got a loan from my mother, I called her up in Brooklyn and she was able to wire it.

I’m so sorry I wasn’t able to help.

It’s alright, it was pretty last minute. Anyway I’m going to KL tomorrow to get it fixed. I’m finally going to have a room of my own with no roommates. Wanna get on a video call? I want to see your pretty face in real life finally.

Yes of course!

He knew that because of my anxious attachment tendencies, I would feel guilty about being not trusting him if he pretended that everything was back to normal. He dropped another hook with a new bait.

“Let’s finally see each other in person and not just speak on the phone. Well, as close to in person since we’re still a border apart. “

I took the bait again.

He called me over WhatsApp’s video late that night. He texted first to check if I was alone and up late. I was nervous because I’ve heard his voice and saw his pictures but it would be the first time we would actually see each other. And from the suggestive texts he’s been sending, it looked like he wanted to see a lot more of me.

Have I engaged in sexy calls and pictures before? Yes, when I was in my serious relationship. But not with a semi-stranger over video. And especially one that was starting to be suspicious but I was still holding out hope. So I kept my lights off and made sure my face was out of my frame. He rang and all I saw was a dark screen.

TS: Hi babe, so nice to finally see you! You look so hot…

Me: Hi… well I can’t see you actually. Is your camera on?

TS: Oh, no you can’t see me? But I can see you… oh no, I’m using the company’s phone. Maybe it’s broken..

(The bullshit radar started to beep. )

Me: I thought you use your own equipment since you’re an independent contractor?

TS: Oh yes of course but for phones and laptops, there’s sensitive information that needs to stay under the company. Maybe that’s why they turn off the camera on this phone. Anyway babe, don’t you trust me? Why else would I want to see you at this hour when I should be sleeping? I miss you.

Again as I retell the story, it’s as obvious as watching a horror movie where the victim alone at home is on the phone while the masked murderer is right behind her, seen by the audience but painfully unaware of the danger ahead.

So I indulged him, keeping the lights off and never putting my face in the shot. There were hints throughout – he asked to put the camera to my pretty face and please turn on the lights. I said no, the family’s asleep. I told him I wanted to see him too. He said he can’t send a video but here’s some dick pics as a consolation. After all he was so turned on by me. At the end of the call, he said he needed to go now and he’ll talk to me tomorrow.

But I laid in bed and felt wrong. Not from the deed itself, just that my bullshit radar couldn’t be quashed under my made-up excuses for TS. I took his dick pics and ran it through Google Image Search. And they showed up in the results. A Tumblr archive of gay men and their private photos from 2010s.

My blood ran cold. Oh fuck, I was recorded. I’m about to be blackmailed.

Sign 5: The Blackmail is a step that also often befalls males who are targets of online love scammers. Just as described in my experience, there’s often a session whereby both parties proceed to be intimate over video. In some reported cases, they do see the scammer on video (she could be part of the ploy or even a webcam video stolen from someone else). Ultimately, what happens next is that a private moment gets recorded with your face and identifying features in order for extortion to happen next. The scammer would come back to you, announce that they have incriminating photos/videos which they would release to your friends and family unless you pay up $X.

TS wanted me to pay up no matter what. It is his job after all. He’s not in love with me. If I wouldn’t wire money because of his sob story, he would find another reason for me. I’m just a paycheck in his list of targets.

My only advantage right at that moment? 5 minutes after our call, my rose-tinted glasses was taken off. It got replaced by my work ones.

The Aftermath

After the waves of nausea and chills washed over me in bed, I dusted myself off, put on my metaphorical black leather trenchcoat and sunglasses on and asked myself “What would The Matrix’s Trinity do?”

I retraced both mine and TS’s steps since we first met online.

Ok, so his account is deleted. I have his phone number.

Ran it through Google.

It is Malaysian, it’s under Digicom but it’s a pre-paid one. Ok, I should have guessed. What do I have next?

His photos. Let’s run them through Google Image search. Ok, nothing comes up except his dick pics. Maybe he is real and I’m being paranoid?

Nope, as I read through forums whereby other women were similarly scammed. Often the pictures of the profile are genuine people but are stolen from their social media. Therefore you won’t be able to run a Google search for them since they’re still behind the closed walls of Facebook or Instagram. These faces are often unsuspecting victims as well.

Was he even Spanish like he said he was?

He did have a strong accent but sometimes it sounded a little off. I thought it was because he spent a long time in Asia. Then again, like most articles on how to spot a romance scam noted, online scammers tend to have bad grammar, strange syntax or use different slangs that are contrary to the country they claim they’re from.

I couldn’t find him online at all. No Facebook, no Instagram, nothing. He was a ghost. I looked at my profiles again and realized how this ghost came to life.

Ok, it’s still late at night. I have some time. I made all my profiles immediately private. Just in case he snuck in and tried to pull out my friends list.

What’s next?

It was embarrassing but I made the call. I had a contact who’s an investigator with the police force. I texted her the next morning and told her the story. I was so embarrassed and humiliated as I poured out to her how I think I’ve been scammed, how I’ve probably been recorded in an intimate moment and how I suspect I’m about to be blackmailed. She gave me a call back that afternoon.

“Hello, this is Inspector Y. Has he contacted you yet?”

“Not about the video but he just wished me good morning and said he’s going to have a busy day but he’ll call me later tonight.”

“Ok good, well that means he’s on another mark but he’ll probably try to extort money from you later tonight with your video. You mentioned your face was not recorded?”

“I don’t think so and it was dark. Maybe if the camera moved and there’s a glimpse. What should I do? I’m so scared he’s going to find me on other profiles or find my friends list!”

“Well you can report it if you want but it seems that he might be overseas and with fake accounts, these scammers are hard to track down. What I can describe to you is that their modus operandi is all about money. This is a business for them. So they won’t waste time hunting you down if it means they could be spending that hour on another mark that can pay.”

“What about the video? Do you think he’ll release it?”

“I can’t comment on that as different syndicates work differently. Let’s just say unfortunately there are a lot of videos and photos uploaded without consent. But if you believe that the quality taken was bad and you cannot be identified, it is still a calculated risk on your part. Let’s just say they act purely out of a business interest, there is nothing personal about it. It won’t be an act of revenge if they release it, they’re motivated by money.”

So I thanked her, got off the phone and decided what to do next. I replied TS casually:

“Ok babe, have a good day then, I’ll talk to you later! “

Then I blocked him.

Then I spent the next 3 days sick with fear that I’m going to get an anonymous email with a video link and an extortion note. I even set up a Google alert with my name on it. And as each day passed, true enough – I didn’t hear anything from TS. After a week, I let off a sigh of relief.

A month passed since almost getting love scammed. Sometimes I would still run his photos through image searches wondering who is this poor unknown victim too who’s been using his pictures to lure lonely women like me.

Part of me was also envisioning a surreal fairytale ending where I do find the real Mr Machu Pichu, tells him all about an online scammer impersonating him, him thanking me profusely for letting him know, and in a strange twist of fate, we end up together happily ever after. I was trying to make sense of being (almost) scammed.

But nah, I deleted his pictures after that.

Then on a whim, I figured it was time for me to get back on the dating horse. I’m wiser now aren’t I? So back on Tinder I went, and late one night as I swiped, swiped, swiped in bed, I came across a profile. The name and age were different and the cover page of the profile was an odd choice of a green hill. But my bullshit detector let off a silent ‘heyyy..’ I slid my finger to view the second picture in the album.

OMG it’s him. It’s TS again.

I paused, “Oh crap, does it mean he can see my profile too? He knows I’m back online? He can still blackmail me???” So with fingers trembling, I hit the ‘Report this account’ button. And I never saw him again.

PSA: If you need more information or to report to the Singapore authorities, please check out the Scam Alert Singapore website that’s set up by non-profit The National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC). It’s a good resource for identifying different scams, reading up other stories and how to report to the authorities.

And as always, we’re always here if you need a listening ear/help if you find yourself in a similar situation. You can email us or drop a DM in our instagram and rest assure our correspondence will be confidential and kept anonymous.