When relationship fraud isn’t driven by sex or money, what’s the fraudster’s motive?
Philip Becnel investigates what makes a “catfisher” tick.
“At work, I’m the quiet one. Everyone here sees who I want them to see, which is a sweet, kind of naïve girl. I’m very good at masking things. Sometimes I wonder if I’m a sociopath.”
The woman I was chatting with, who identified herself as “Anna,” told me that she’s a 28-year-old CPA working for a company in West Palm Beach. Anna gave me a riveting firsthand account of how she uses various aliases online to meet men for brief relationships, before she disappears and never contacts them again.
I’ll delve more into Anna and what motivates her to deceive the men she dates in a bit, but suffice to say that fraud in relationships is much more common than you may think.
I got interested in learning more about relationship fraud last year when a woman in San Diego, whose husband works for the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command, hired my private investigations firm. I will refer to him as “Mike.” They have kids.
The woman was suspicious that Mike, who claimed to be living on a ship in Norfolk, might actually have a double life. Mike was often cagey about where he had been, and he carefully guarded control over the couple’s bank accounts. The woman’s suspicions were heightened when a friend informed her that Mike’s ship wasn’t docked in Norfolk like he claimed and that he was actually working at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.
We ran Mike’s name and Social Security number through an investigative database, and with that we determined that he had some connection to a home located in Columbia, Maryland. One of my investigators drove by this home at night and noted that a vehicle in the driveway had a Department of Defense parking sticker, the same type used at the Navy Yard. The investigator returned to the home the following morning, where he captured photographs of Mike—along with his second wife and their infant child—emerging from their residence.
Mike’s life unraveled from there, as we were able to put together the pieces of his deceptive façade using social media and public records. We served the divorce papers on Mike in his driveway a couple weeks later as he was standing next to his other wife. A second investigator in a nearby car video-recorded Mike’s morose expression as he registered what the documents were about. I wrote off a portion of our client’s bill in return for permission to cite her case in this article, provided I don’t use anyone’s name.
Private investigators are intimately familiar with stories like this, cases where someone in a relationship is not at all who they claim to be. It happens all the time. I recently asked some of my colleagues about the most outrageous lies they’ve ever encountered in domestic cases, and some tips on what to look out for.
Jay Rosenzweig, a private investigator in Woodland Hills, California, told me about a case where a husband hired him because he thought his wife was cheating on him. It turned out she was working as a prostitute at a massage parlor. In this case, the man ignored plenty of clear warning signs, including the fact that his wife was highly secretive about her job and often came home with large amounts of unexplained cash.
“She’d come home with $3,000 every night,” Jay commented wryly. “And he somehow didn’t know what was going on.”
A Few Troubling Discrepancies in Jim’s Account
Sometimes these cases touch us personally, too. A few years back my mother, who lives in Virginia, got taken in by a man who asked her out at the gym. His name was Jim, and we called him “Jim from the Gym.”
“It was my ravishing beauty that drove him to me,” my mom joked.
Jim from the Gym, who was a NASA scientist, told her that he was divorced and that he had two kids living on the West Coast. He later moved from Virginia to Seattle, and he and my mom continued a long distance relationship for several years.
According to Jim, his daughter, with whom he claimed to be living, was “very conservative” and didn’t want Jim dating anyone after his divorce from their mother.
“We were staying in various hotels together,” my mom explained, “And he always wanted to use my address, and he always paid cash. So, I asked him what was going on, and he said he didn’t want his daughter finding out about us.”
I told my mother at the time that Jim’s story sounded ridiculous and that he was likely married. I offered to investigate the guy for her, but she brushed me off. I let it go.
It wasn’t until a planned trip to New Mexico that my mom got suspicious. “The phone numbers he called me from were kind of in weird places. When he called me from a Denver number, I was really suspicious, because he never mentioned being in Denver.” My mom did her own investigation; she finally Googled the guy, and she found a marriage license. It turned out that Jim from the Gym had been married for years.
If someone like Jim could trick my mom, who is no dummy, I figured it could happen to anyone.
“He bought one of those phones you buy so that you can’t be tracked,” she told me.
My mom wrote a long letter to Jim’s wife. (He later died from cancer, which is why I don’t mind using his real name here.)
If someone like Jim could trick my mom, who is no dummy, I figured it could happen to anyone. People in love see what they want to see, and we’re bound to take what people tell us at face value. The case involving Mike, however, made me curious about what makes people go to such lengths to deceive their lovers. Surely sex is a big part of it, but if my experience as an investigator has taught me anything, it’s that things aren’t usually as simple as they seem.
It was this curiosity that spurred me to interview admitted “catfishers” on the pseudonymous social media site Whisper, which is what led me to Anna.
Anna’s Big Secret
“Catfishing” is when someone uses a fake identity online to lure strangers into some type of interaction, often an online romance. Sometimes the aim is to solicit illicit photographs; other times it’s done as something of a sadistic sport.
“Sometimes I pretend I’m from another country,” Anna wrote during our conversation. “[With] one guy I was from Europe. We went out and everything, so I had to keep the English accent up. But when things got serious—he wanted to meet my family—I couldn’t, so I broke it off and blocked him. [I] told him I was ‘going back home.’ I use disposable phones.”
Asked why she does this sort of thing, Anna explained, “I don’t think I’m trying to hurt anyone. I’m just lonely and hope that someone would like me—just me—flaws and all. But whenever I have been me—open and honest—most guys have used that [against me], because I’m kind and naïve. So this is my way of taking back control of the situation.”
She told me that the longest relationship she has carried on with someone using a fake identity was two years. “When it gets serious, I change my screen name and start over again.
“I keep track of names, etc. in a notebook, so I never slip or make a mistake,” she added.
For Anna, the real benefit is the reward of romance without risk.
It was very clear during my conversation with Anna that dating via deception is not about sex, although she does occasionally have sex with the men she meets. For her—and I suspect this is equally true for others who engage in relationship fraud—the real benefit is the reward of romance without risk.
Anna explained, “I’m young, I have a great job, everything. But what I’m missing is the excitement I create for myself online.”
It’s this excitement and the thrill of having the upper hand over others that makes relationship fraud so appealing to those who do it. It’s what makes people like Mike so willing to exact such harm against those they purportedly care about and at such great personal risk.
For people involved with catfishers and other relationship fraudsters, the lesson is that there are some warning signs to look out for—disposable phone numbers with weird area codes, unexplained cash, and a reluctance from your partner to let you meet family members. As with every other type of fraud, little lies are often symptomatic of larger lies. Ask yourself if your lover’s story makes sense. If it doesn’t, then there is a good chance he’s playing you.
The important thing to know, however, is that this phenomenon has little to do with the victim and everything to do with the fantasy of the fraudster. Anna said it best: “I get to live in whatever fantasy world I create.”
To stay out of the fantasy worlds of relationship fraudsters, watch for the warning signs—and heed the advice of your son, particularly if he happens to be a private investigator.
About the Author:
Philip Becnel is the managing partner of Dinolt Becnel & Wells Investigative Group LLC and is the author of Introduction to Conducting Private Investigations and Principle of Investigative Documentation. Philip is a licensed private investigator in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.