Editor’s note: Carla Alemo, an associate professor at Hofstra University’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication, writes on issues affecting women and social media. Her book, This Feed Is On Fire: Why Social Media Is Bad for Women and Girls—and How We Can Take It Back, will be published by Alcove Press in 2024. The opinions expressed in this review are her own. See more opinions at CNN.
Michelle Blandin, whose parents and sister were killed last week after her 15-year-old niece appeared to be the victim of “catfish fishing,” spoke at a news conference Wednesday and urged Parents make sure their kids are safe online.
Former Virginia police officer and suspected murderer Austin Lee Edwards, 28, is suspected of “fishing” Blanding’s teenage niece — meaning he met the girl online, And pretend to be another person in order to form a romantic relationship with her. It is believed he then killed Blandin’s parents, Mark and Sally Wink, and her sister, Brooke Wink, before leaving Riverside, California, with Blandin’s niece. After a neighbor spotted a suspicious car and called the police, Edwards was eventually pulled over and killed in a shootout with a sheriff’s deputy. The girl was not physically injured – and had no mother.
“Parents, be aware of your children’s online activity, ask what they’re doing and who they’re talking to,” Blanding said. “Anyone can say they’re someone else, and you could be in that situation.”
It’s not just parents who should worry about this. We all need to take this incident as a wake-up call to how many of the people we meet online may not be who they claim to be.
“Catfish” is growing at an alarming rate, especially on online dating sites. One of the reasons people are “catfished” is for money. Online predators try to create an emotional connection with their targets and then demand cash, claiming it’s so they can visit them, or pay for surgery, for example. Then they disappear.
Americans will lose nearly 80% more money to romance scams in 2021 than they did the previous year, according to the Federal Trade Commission, which said it was the largest category of fraud suffered by Americans last year. That’s likely because people spent more time than ever on mobile apps last year, at least in part due to the pandemic.
Other times, Catfish will gain a woman’s trust and then offer to help them invest. Sometimes they set up elaborate websites that make these women think they are watching their cryptocurrency grow — when in reality their money has been stolen by these crooks.
But the gruesome Riverside killings show that catfish don’t just prey on people’s finances. They also put our lives at risk.
For an upcoming book, I’ve been interviewing women about their experiences using social media. Women have repeatedly told me that they have recently stopped using online dating sites because many of the “men” they match online don’t seem real.
“After a while, you start following them because they’re regular dudes and you know it’s a stolen photo,” one woman told me. But the woman holds a senior post in international diplomacy. We can’t expect a 15-year-old girl to be able to tell that the person she’s interacting with online isn’t who he claims to be.
What’s more, even highly educated, worldly women I’ve interviewed told me that when they lied about their identities, they initially believed catfish. Some people don’t realize these scammers until they first realize that the person they’re communicating with is lying about their identity – after he asks for money or after they talk on the phone, she realizes that his accent is not that of the country he claims it’s from ,E.g.
So it’s not just parents who should be afraid. Of course, this is a chilling reminder that we need to educate our children about the risks of these scams. We need to teach our children how to protect themselves online, closely monitor their online activity, and help them deal with potentially dangerous situations. Kids are best off meeting new people offline—at school or through extracurricular activities. But, as adults, we also need to be hyper vigilant that people may not be who they say they are online.
If you meet someone online, stick to chatting over video so you can see if they are who they claim to be. If you decide to meet in person, do it in a public place, tell people where you’re going in advance, and stay vigilant for a long time – until you’ve met the person’s family, friends and/or colleagues, can identify them with certainty, and There is solid evidence to trust them.
It’s also a stark reminder that, as I’ve said before, online dating sites and other social networks that match people with intent to meet in the real world should verify the identities of their users and run background checks on them.
The great thing about online dating and other social media sites is that they increase the number of so-called fish in the sea, widening our pool of potential friends and mates. But those who use these sites should also know that “phishing” has become a very common practice. Our lives depend on not falling victim to these scams.