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.
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.