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Owner of Social Catfish Breaks Down Online Dating Scams

David McClellan shares how to spot fake photos, bios and more when you meet someone online

illustration of a masked burglar with wings and a cupid bow and arrow pretending it is love

Yarek Waszul

En español | David McClellan was doing just fine professionally as an online marketing consultant in 2013 when he first saw the MTV reality show Catfish. The series features people who innocently develop relationships with others online, only to discover the person is a scammer.

At first McClellan watched the show just for entertainment. It wasn't until his customers started asking how they, too, could avoid being caught in a romance scam that he sensed an opportunity. So, he and his partner launched Social Catfish, a website that helps you learn about that person you met online.

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Seven years later, McClellan and his partner had a healthy enterprise. Then the pandemic hit and “healthy” became “booming,” as people stuck at home turned to the internet to meet new people and pass the time. Calls and emails to the AARP Fraud Watch Network confirm a recent surge in romance scams targeting older Americans.

How do background-check firms like Social Catfish, BeenVerified and TruthFinder help? For a small monthly fee, customers can access tools that help locate people's background information, such as former addresses and employment history. In addition, some sites have a “reverse image” search function, where customers can upload a photo to check whether it's authentic. Social Catfish, which specializes in romance scams, offers a more costly service as well: A staffer will research and create a full report on the person in question.

I asked McClellan how his customers break down between men and women, and he said that subscribers are split roughly 50-50 (clearly, we're all vulnerable). I also asked what percentage of the people that his business investigates turn out to be scammers. “About 70 percent,” he responded, pointing out that most of his clients turn to his firm only when they've seen some kind of red flag, usually a request for money.

Clues of fraud can be easy to spot. To start, many romance scammers use the same fake photos; often, he said, they'll steal pics of attractive people in military uniforms or porn stars (dressed, of course) or popular posters on social networks. The commonality? All have proven they'll draw lots of eyeballs. McClellan added that scammers use the same scripts, with the same canned phrases, over and over. Plus, he said, it's not uncommon for scammers to be involved with multiple victims at one time and to spend hours on the phone with the same person. “They see it as a full-time job.”

Spotting Fake Online Dating Profiles

What do they talk about for that long? Monica Whitty, an Australian social psychologist, has published papers outlining how romance scammers groom victims by showering them with compliments, sending love poems, professing their undying support and even mailing small gifts with love notes attached. Some experts refer to this as love bombing. The goal is to get the victim so infatuated with the scammer — or, more accurately, the character he or she portrays — that the victim will be more likely to say yes when asked for money.

In past interviews, scammers have told me they wait until the victim has clearly fallen for them to make their move. Even then, they never ask for money outright — it's always a “loan” or a “temporary advance” to get them out of a one-time (and, of course, fake) jam. That makes it seem less risky.

"Most people lose only a couple hundred dollars and then wise up. But we also have clients who have lost hundreds of thousands,” McClellan noted. Either way, it's a double loss: financial and emotional. For some, learning their love interest is not real can be the bigger hurt.

I asked McClellan what new twists he's seeing. Scammers are moving beyond dating sites to online games where you can play with people you don't know, he said. Over time, the scammer will identify vulnerable people and befriend them.

McClellan doesn't say to give up on meeting people online: “Just do your due diligence and independently verify whom you're talking to before making any commitments. And never send them money — period.

AARP’s Fraud Watch Network can help you spot and avoid scams. Sign up for free Watchdog Alerts, review our scam-tracking map, or call our toll-free fraud helpline at 877-908-3360 if you or a loved one suspect you’ve been a victim.