'Catfished': The Story of One Woman Duped By a Fake Dating Profi - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

'Catfished': The Story of One Woman Duped By a Fake Dating Profile

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GRAND COULEE, Wash. -- When the outlandish story of Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o and his imaginary girlfriend broke in January, one word shot to the spotlight: "catfish."

"Catfish" is the name of a 2010 documentary about lonely hearts sucked into online romances, which are built on fake identities. The makers of the film developed a reality show for MTV of the same name. In Te'o's story, he fell for a girl he never met based on an elaborate social media profile. At the end of it all, Te'o was led to believe his so-called girlfriend had died. But that wasn't the worst of it. The story took an even more bizarre turn when Te'o found out his fake-dead girlfriend was actually a man.

While Te'o's story might be the most infamous example of "catfishing", he's certainly not the first.

"All of a sudden, it kind of scares you like 'What - how can this not be real?'" Tammy Starkey said.

At her home in Grande Coulee, Starkey still chokes up at the thought of falling into the same trap when all she wanted was to fall in love.

"After being divorced for five years, I just decided that, you know, I think it was time to try and find the person who might be my match," she explained.

Like so many single moms with a full-time job, Starkey felt crunched for time and limited in the local dating pool. "Around a small town, everybody knows everybody," she said.

So Starkey took a shot at finding love online. Right away, it appeared, love found her.

"I think it is an alluring thing," she said. "They tried to say sweet things - things you want to hear - and it's just 'Wow! Somebody wants to talk to me!'"

That's how she met the man who introduced himself as Justin Hatfield. He said he was an American soldier fighting for his country in Afghanistan and over the course of several months, they developed a courtship over the computer.

"You are reeled in. You're like 'wow, this is exciting. Butterflies in your stomach, sparkle in your eye, and you're like 'This is awesome.' And then you go for it."

Hatfield said that he planned to visit Starkey. However, that's when sweet-talking gave way to swindling. Hatfield claimed, in order to take leave, he needed Starkey to pay a $485 "processing fee". In a military document which Hatfield convinced Starkey was "official", he wrote the that Starkey's money would be "sent to the financial secretary through Western Union money transfer." Starkey's first instinct was to send him the money.

"I did! I was just like 'Oh my god!" Starkey explained.

Starkey didn't know at the time that that's not how the military works.

"You're so into love, you want to believe everything," she continued.

Unfortunately, it's a common romance ruse. The con artist, often based in Internet cafes in Africa, lifts a photo from social media sites and creates an entirely fake profile. These imposters aren't shy about luring in lonely hearts with pictures of military personnel, alive or dead.

Before Manti Te'o, Army Master Sgt. C.J. Grisham was the victim of online hoaxes when he'd discovered his picture was repeatedly and unwittingly plastered on dozens of dating profiles. Grisham, who's also a military blogger, now tracks these elusive imposters. Some reports say as many as one out of 10 profiles are romance scammers.

Back in Grand Coulee, Starkey never ended up sending any money. She said a friend realized what was happening and broke the news to her: the man she fell for was just a figment of someone else's imagination.

Starkey said, "I felt so heartbroken. My barriers went up. I felt like I couldn't trust again. It was just awful."

It wasn't until after a second stab at online dating, when another man pulled at her heart-strings for a hand out, that Starkey set out to find her online imposters. She checked Google and cross-referenced pictures and names. She never found the men who scammed her and likely never will.

she never did. and likely, never will.

"After this experience, it's not. It's not fun for me anymore," she said.

The man she fell for wasn't real but the pain was, and it was the hit to her heart that hurt the most.

Starkey has since given up on online dating. She now only dates in person and KHQ is pleased to report that she has since met someone. However, she shared her story as a cautionary tale so others who consider online dating will be extra vigilant about the people who they communicate with.

TIPS TO AVOID BEING THE VICTIM OF AN ONLINE SCAM:

* Military pictures should turn on your scam radar warning. Some of the biggest scams occur from supposed soldiers in the armed services with a believable sob story and a desperate need to settle down.

* Try and keep the conversation going on the dating site messaging system rather than being dragged off to Skype or MSN, at least initially.

* Use some basic conversational tests: If the person claims to be local, engage in a local-knowledge conversation (e.g. the weather, some nearby event, sports team, TV, or festival) and watch for mistakes. If the person is not claiming to be local, consider why he or she would want a long-distance relationship. Is there good reason, such as some particularly unusual common ground? If not, why aren't they restricting themselves to people a bit nearer to their current location?

* Look out for words like "dear" and old-fashioned romantic language, as well as badly formed sentences.

* Never, ever send money to anyone on a dating site, and especially avoid wiring cash.

* Always be on the lookout for get-rich-quick schemes. If it sounds too good to be true, then it's probably a scam.

RESOURCES TO BACKGROUND POSSIBLE SUITORS' STORIES:

*Internet Crimes Complaint Center .... http://www.ic3.gov/default.aspx

*To protect consumers, volunteers at www.romancescams.org/ post details of counterfeit dating profiles they've encountered: http://www.romancescams.org/

*Grisham's personal blog to track stolen soldiers' photos ... Http//asp.militarygear.com/2010/07/28/the-wall-of-shame/

*Google + face recognition feature called Find My Face can help reveal the real identity of someone in a photo posted online ...http://support.google.com/plus/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=2370300

*Zillow can cross-reference addresses of a potential online suitor ... http://www.zillow.com/

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