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Your photos can be used in 'catfishing' romance scams

For years, images of Alec Couros have been used for so-called "catfishing": online romance scams often used to cheat 'love interests' out of money. Now he's on a campaign to educate potential victims.
For years, images of Alec Couros have been used for so-called "catfishing": online romance scams often used to cheat 'love interests' out of money. Now he's on a campaign to educate potential victims. (Getty Images)
Listen16:23

Alec Couros has had photos of himself used to create hundreds of phony social media and dating site profiles over the last 10 years.

Alec researches and speaks about social media and digital literacy as a professor of Information and Communication Technologies at the University of Regina. He's not the first person you'd expect to be the victim of this kind of identity theft.

The fake profiles created with Alec's image are being used for "catfishing". Catfishing refers to the malicious practice of setting up fake profiles in order to lure victims. Often, the profiles are used in phony romance scams. A scammer will pose as someone else, using images scraped from the web, and use the fake romance to get money from the victim.

One of the fake Facebook profiles Alec Couros found. It used his image, but claimed to be someone named Alex Gallart.

Alec is often approached online by people who have been lured by scammers using his face. "Some weeks I can get two or three a day," Alec says. "There have been hundreds and hundreds of profiles that I've reported to Facebook," he says, adding that many of the ones he's reported have been taken down.

It's not just Facebook, though. "Every dating site that you can imagine...every social network you can imagine...Sometimes they go for a romantic connection. Sometimes they might go for a more professional connection."

They feel incredibly victimized, not only around having lost money, but in a big way they feel like their hearts have been broken- Alec Couros

The real Alec Couros
"Sometimes the victims, or potential victims, will find me before; they might have figured it out…[but] sometimes the victims have been in relationships with these criminals for months, if not years," Alec explains. They may have found Alec's image through something like a reverse image search after having sent the scammer money and not heard back.

"They feel incredibly victimized, not only around having lost money, but in a big way they feel like their hearts have been broken," he adds.

This is organized crime. These are a number of people who actively trade photos of people online- Alec Couros

The fraudsters are not just isolated individuals, either, which explains why Alec's image has been so widely used. "This is organized crime. These are a number of people who actively trade photos of people online," he explains. "There's also a distributed network of these scammers who might be new...who are trading photos that have been successful beforehand."

In Alec's case, older images are augmented with newer ones. "In the early days of web 2.0...people, including myself, we were a bit less strict in terms of privacy settings, so I had a lot of photos on Flickr," he says. Now, though, the photos are professional images, such as publicly available photos taken at conferences.

Alec is committed to raising awareness about catfishing. He has even created an online resource, based on his own research and experience, along with external resources. If you're concerned you might be a victim of catfishing, find it here.

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