'It's everywhere': New podcast uncovers prolific global catfishing networks
Love, Janessa is a true crime investigation from CBC Podcasts & the BBC World Service
It's a tale as old as smartphones; two people meet on an app and fall in love.
Except, sometimes, the person on the other end of the messages isn't who they say they are — and definitely isn't the face in the photos they've been sharing. For some, it can end in heartbreak. For others, it can also end in bankruptcy.
As explored in a new podcast series called Love, Janessa, these romance scams aren't always one-offs. In many cases, they're part of larger underground networks being run on a global scale to lure people into emotional and financial duress.
The podcast, from CBC Podcasts and the BBC World Service by Antica Productions and Telltale Industries, is the story of 'Janessa,' a woman whose stolen images are frequently used as bait in such catfishing schemes. But who is Janessa? Host and journalist Hannah Ajala embarks on a wild journey to find out.
CBC Podcasts spoke with Antica producer Laura Regehr and Ajala to learn more about the making of the series. Here is part of that conversation.
Most people have a basic knowledge of what 'catfishing' is and what it means, based on how it's represented in the media. How did your understanding of the concept evolve while making this podcast?
Hannah: I think I looked at it like many people: questioning how one can be so naive to trust someone they are not even truly sure is honest, or exists! I have grown so much more compassionate during this process. I have got up close and personal with those personally affected by these multi-million dollar money making schemes. Real people with real feelings. It kind of gives me faith in how many more people wear their hearts on their sleeves than I thought.
Laura: I hadn't understood how sophisticated catfishing schemes can be. I assumed they were more random — starting with a dramatic message from a stranger — with the goal of making some fast cash. I won't give too much of the podcast away, but suffice it to say those assumptions were wrong and we now understand why — and how — so many people can be trapped by very complex, personal and targeted scams.
What was the most shocking thing you learned while making this podcast?
H: The witchcraft part of the scams run by Sawaka Boys: black magic, voodoo, juju. There are many terms for it. But I never would have imagined voodoo and romance scamming would be so interconnected. It's used so much more than we thought it is. Oh, and also the amounts of money that people get scammed out of. It's almost unbelievable learning about these numbers!
L: I was blown away by the volume and intensity of online romance scams. Many victims get involved in long-term relationships and develop deep emotional connections to their scammers (who aren't who they say they are). These schemes are the definition of a "long con" which are actually full-time jobs for some of the criminals.
Technology is both a hero and villain in this story — it enriches lives through connection and belonging. But it's also a tool that's destroyed many lives, broken many hearts and drained many bank accounts.- Laura Regehr, producer
What does this podcast say about the role of technology in people's quests for love?
H: It's almost paramount for some people. As the world becomes increasingly digital, online dating seems to just make sense for many of us. There is no shame in it.
L: When you boil it down, technology is the main character in Love, Janessa. None of the relationships in this podcast would be possible without it, and the more sophisticated the technology, the more elaborate the scam. Technology is both a hero and villain in this story — it enriches lives through connection and belonging. But it's also a tool that's destroyed many lives, broken many hearts and drained many bank accounts.
What are you hoping listeners will take away from this series?
H: That catfishing is a global phenomenon. It doesn't have a face or location, it's everywhere. I respect the fact that this investigation broadens this a lot. I want perceptions to be changed and stereotypes to be challenged too.
You have to be so careful! Humans are unpredictable, especially when it comes to how they use technology. So much happens behind the scenes… Time is precious — and so is money!
L: If someone you meet online seems too good to be true — too loving, too devoted, too interested in starting a relationship with you — they probably are.
There are so many layers to this story and a lot of lessons to take away from it, but I'm hopeful that this series will serve as a cautionary tale for anyone who's open to meeting people online. Also, if you're contacted by a stranger out of the blue, be wary. Take steps to verify their identity before you get into a relationship of any kind… and definitely before you send them any money!
Q&A edited for length & clarity. Produced by Émilie Quesnel.