Catfishing Scams Make a Comeback During the Pandemic

According to the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), cybercriminals may be using catfishing, a type of impersonation scam, in an attempt to play on people’s emotions during the pandemic to steal money or personal information. Learn these 9 ways to better protect yourself against catfishing and other impersonation scams.

Scammers May Impersonate Frontline Medical Workers

Catfishing is when a scammer creates a fake social media profile in an attempt to trick victims into sending money or providing personal information that could be used to commit identity theft. Experts say that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented new opportunities for scammers to use stolen photos and pretend to be someone they’re not.

According to reports, scammers have stolen photos of frontline medical workers to lure in victims. In one instance, a fake social media profile was used to impersonate a nursing student to solicit donations to a fraudulent Coronavirus fund. The stolen images were reportedly also used to create fake profiles on dating apps.

Impersonation Scams Can Take Many Forms

Imposter scammers lie about their identity --pretending to be someone the victim would likely trust. Criminals may impersonate a government agency, a well-known business, or even a friend or family member of the targeted victim. Below are some of the ways that cybercriminals attempt to trick their victims:

  • Fake charities - Fraudulent charity schemes may raise money for organizations that do little or no charitable work (the money often goes to the scam charity’s organizers instead). While these scams can happen any time, they are especially prevalent in times of crisis. Charity fraudsters may approach potential victims through email, social media, phone calls, or even crowdfunding platforms.
  • Government impersonations - Scammers may use the guise of a government agency to try to obtain personal or financial information from victims. Cybercriminals may impersonate the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Social Security Administration (SSA), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), or a representative of the state health department or unemployment office. Government imposter scams often use fear to get victims to act quickly, stating that something is wrong with the victim’s Social Security number or IRS filings.
  • Celebrity imposters - Scammers may impersonate a celebrity and reach out to the celebrity’s real social media followers asking for money for charitable donations, tickets to private concerts or events, or processing fees for a prize giveaway. Receiving a direct message from a famous musician, actor, or athlete is often a sign of a scam.
  • Fake bosses and co-workers - Working from home can be the perfect opportunity for a hacker to attempt to take over a victim’s email account or break into a corporate network. Hackers may also impersonate a company’s help desk and request the victim’s password for a so-called verification.
  • Delivery services scams Experts warn consumers to be aware of phishing emails, texts, or phone calls that claim to be from a delivery service such as Amazon, FedEx, or UPS.
  • Tech support impersonators - Victims may be contacted by tech support scammers who claim the victim has a problem with their computer that needs immediate attention. These scammers may asthat the victim pays for tech support services they don't need and ask that the victim wires money, purchases a gift card or prepaid card, or sends funds using a money transfer app.
  • Romance scams - Romance scams, also called confidence scams, occur when a bad actor deceives a victim into believing they have a trusted relationship and then uses the relationship to persuade the victim to give money, personal and financial information, or items of value to the perpetrator. The initial grooming phase can last for days, weeks, or even months, and by that time, the victim may be extremely vulnerable to the scam.
  • Grandparent scams - In grandparent scams, or family emergency scams, criminals may pose as panicked grandchildren who need money to help with an emergency, such as paying a hospital bill or leaving a foreign country. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), scammers' lies can be particularly compelling during the pandemic.

9 Ways to Better Protect Yourself from Impersonation Scams

  • Research people you meet online - The ITRC recommends that individuals research the person the profile claims to be. If someone refuses to meet in person, it is probably a scam. It is recommended to never send money or personal information to someone who will not meet in person.
  • Beware of “spoof” calls - Spoof calls can falsely identify incoming calls as someone else, such as the IRS, SSA, or Small Business Administration (SBA). It is recommended to instead search for a person or organization’s contact information and get in touch with them directly.
  • Be cautious in providing money or information - Experts warn against sending money to individuals you haven’t met, particularly via money order, prepaid debit card, or gift card. Don’t give information in response to unsolicited messages, and don’t click unfamiliar links that may install malware.
  • Do your homework on charitable donations - Experts recommend giving to established charities, and to be wary of organizations with copycat names similar to reputable organizations. It’s recommended to give using a check or credit card, as an organization that asks for donations through cash, gift card, virtual currency, or wire transfer is likely a scam. Ask for the charity’s Employer Identification Number (EIN), and consider donating elsewhere if they don’t have one. Thoroughly research charity solicitations from crowdfunding campaigns.
  • Be wary of fraudulent celebrity solicitations - If you are contacted by someone claiming to be a celebrity, experts advise doing an internet search on the celebrity’s name with the word “scam” to see if impostor schemes have been reported. It’s also recommended not to engage with a supposed celebrity on an unverified social media account.
  • Validate unusual messages from people you know - Experts recommend that individuals be skeptical of unusual messages appearing to be from relatives or friends. If someone calls or sends a message claiming to be a grandchild, family member, or friend in need of money, verify the caller’s identity by asking questions a stranger couldn’t answer or research the situation by contacting another family member or friend through their legitimate phone number.
  • Practice good cyber hygiene - Don't click links or open email attachments in unsolicited messages. It’s best to manually type website URLs into a browser instead. Don't provide any personal information in response to an email, robocall, or text.
  • Consider setting up an alert on your name - To better detect if someone is using your likeness for a catfishing scam, experts say that individuals should consider setting up Google alerts with different variations of their name. Also consider making social media profiles private and report any abuse to the appropriate platform.
  • Report suspicious behavior - Report suspected scams to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). Report online celebrity impersonators to the relevant social network. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have procedures for reporting bogus accounts.

If You Believe You’ve Been a Victim of an Impersonation Scam

If you believe you have been the victim of an Internet scam or cyber crime or to report suspicious activity, visit the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at