Sierra Mihu just wanted something to pass the time.
The fourth-year biological sciences major felt bored during the pandemic, so she decided to download Bumble. This way, she’d combat her boredom and meet new people at the same time.
Then she met Brian, 24, from Lancaster. She swiped right and messaged him.
“He messaged back, and he was really nice,” Mihu said. “The next day, he messaged me and went out of his way to ask me how my exam was that day. He gave me compliments and was really nice.”
It seemed that Mihu had found a nice guy – someone she felt good talking to. After the two of them talked for a while, Brian asked for her Snapchat. Feeling comfortable enough, Mihu gave it to him.
It was all downhill from there.
“He said, ‘Do you want to see what I look like?’ in the messaging part of Snap,” Mihu said. “I didn’t really know what he meant by that, but I said ‘sure.’ He continued to send me a collection of photos of him, but it didn’t have his face in it.”
The pictures were risque shots of Brian, unclothed. This was Mihu’s first red flag that something might not be right.
“I was uncomfortable that he even did that because it didn’t seem like him,” Mihu said. “It didn't seem like this nice guy who would ask about my day and who would compliment me and have a good conversation.”
Then, Brian asked for photos of Mihu in exchange. She trusted her gut on this one and told him “no” – point-blank saying she didn’t trust him. He tried to prove to her that he was who he said he was by sending a mirror selfie.
Immediately, Mihu consulted with her roommates to show them the sketchy photo. There was a border around the picture, like Brian had taken a photo of another photo. She told Brian that she still was unsure, and he blew up.
“He got so angry,” Mihu said. “He was like, ‘What do you mean you don’t know that it’s me? I sent you a Snap; there’s no way I could be fake,’ pretty much gaslighting me, making me feel like the bad guy. Then he said ‘This always happens,’ which was another red flag.”
He tried to convince Mihu that his outburst was due to trust issues, saying the last woman he talked to saved his photos, then blocked him. Mihu was still nervous, citing human trafficking as one of her main concerns, and refused to send him photos.
Their conversations soon became awkward. Brian played the victim card and complained that Mihu thought he was ugly. Mihu ended up blocking him on Snapchat.
The next day, she was watching the MTV show Catfish – unrelated to her situation – and the host of the show did a reverse image search. Mihu was inspired.
“I was like, ‘You know what? Just out of curiosity, I’m going to do this image search, and the literal first result was a Twitter page of the exact same photo,’” Mihu said.
It turned out Brian was posing as a model from a different country. Mihu was catfished, or lured into a relationship from a fictional persona online.
Just last year, Americans lost $201 million to romance scammers, with Ohio having the No. 9 slot of most victims. The FTC reported that romance scams increased by 40% last year, up from $143 million in 2018.
Catfishing has been a growing epidemic during the coronavirus. In a study from SocialCatfish.com, a record 26.6 million people are using data apps in 2020, which is an 18.4% increase from 2019. Additionally, 31% of users said they are spending more time on dating apps.
But it’s not just dating where people are getting scammed. Reese Little, an Athens resident, lost around $40 from an online “bathing suit sale” that was offering a $5 sale. Then, the sale charged her twice for $20 for a membership that was hidden in the fine print.
“I was so mad,” Little said. “I can’t do anything about it. I couldn’t get a hold of the people, and I didn’t have the money to pay for a membership. That’s why I did the sale in the first place because it was only $5.”
Similarly scammed, Christos Ioannou, a sophomore at Capital University, wanted to build his Twitter presence by procuring the handle @Christos, which had been snagged by a Greek Spanish web developer well over a decade ago.
The man with the handle approached Ioannou to set up a trade: $100 for the handle. After setting up a GoFundMe, receiving several Venmos and contributing $20 of his own, Ioannou sent the man money.
The man promptly stopped responding, and that’s when Ioannou realized he was scammed. With the help of his mom and his bank, he was able to get his money back and refund everyone who donated, all within a week or so.
“At the end of it, I felt like a schmuck because there were so many red flags that I should have seen,” Ioannou said. “I fell hook, line and sinker.”
Mihu, Little and Ioannou believe the coronavirus pandemic has played a large role in the increase of catfishing and Internet scams.
“Ever since March, I’ve been much more terminally online,” Ioannou said. “I think it’s one of those things where, now that so many more people are not forced to be online, but a lot more of our social interactions are through social media, it makes it tougher. Not to mention catfishing specifically ... just thinking about all the people who are that starved for contact, I have to imagine that it’s gone up significantly.”
Illustration by Olivia Juenger.