A new way to Catfish: Use a news anchor as bait

Janice Adam (left) started a relationship with someone she met on Facebook named "James." It turned out James was a scammer using photos of Eyewitness News anchor Scott Swan.

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — Janice Adam is an 80-year-old widow from Oklahoma. She's also now a victim of a catfish scam, but this scam had a unique twist.

In 2016, Adam was on Facebook and received a friend request from a guy named "James."

Janice Adam often posted photos "James" said were of him. They were actually photos of Eyewitness News anchor Scott Swan.
Janice Adam often posted photos "James" said were of him. They were actually photos of Eyewitness News anchor Scott Swan.

Except the profile photo of "James" was an image of Eyewitness News anchor Scott Swan. Since Adam wasn't from Indiana, she had no idea she was dealing with a fraud.

"I was closing down Facebook, and your (Scott Swan) picture popped up in a red shirt," Adam said in a Skype interview with Swan from her home in Oklahoma. "I didn't know who you were, of course. I thought you were someone from my church. When I asked him what he did, he said 'I'm a private contractor for an oil company in Texas.'"

After Adam friended "James" on Facebook, they started chatting. First on Facebook Messenger and then on the phone.

"He was calling me on the phone all the time. He was calling me day and night. He would never Facetime me. I asked him, 'Let's video. Let's video,'" she said.

"James" told Janice he was bidding on a contract and asked her to pray for him. Several days later, "James" wrote back saying he won the contract and was leaving for Nigeria. He kept up the ruse and wrote Janice Adam saying his ID and documents were lost at sea. The scammer then elevated the conversation to a different level.

"He started with the romance talk," Adam said. "He said, 'I'm going to send you another picture if you don't mind.' I said, 'Send me a picture.'"

“I feel so stupid now, but I didn't know what was going on then”

"James" was actually sending pictures of Swan, stolen off of Scott's public social media accounts. He was buttering her up, writing a variety of things to her.

"Calling me sweetheart. Calling me beautiful," she said. "I feel so stupid now, but I didn't know what was going on then."

The scammer had Adam hooked.

"Then he said, 'Can you help me?' And I said, 'Help you like how?' He said he needed some money," she said.

Adam is on a fixed income of $3,500 a month, relying on her late husband's pension and her social security. But she still sent "James" lots of money.

"He needed $300 here, $400 there. That kind of thing," she told Swan.

Adam said she sent "James" a total of $5,000 cash using money grams and wiring money through Western Union. She sent "James" $10,000 in gift cards plus a $400 Apple Watch and a $1,300 iPhone.

"He got the phone. He got the watch. And he got the money," she said. "I said, 'Now I want to Facetime you. I want to Facetime you.' But he said something happened and the camera broke on the phone."

Five months into their relationship, the scammer started acting sick. Then Adam began receiving pictures of Swan in the hospital.

"James" used photos of Eyewitness News anchor Scott Swan in the hospital to claim he was sick.
"James" used photos of Eyewitness News anchor Scott Swan in the hospital to claim he was sick.

"He must have gone into your account and found out you were sick," she told Swan.

"James" had Adam convinced he was the one who was sick. She said the scammer began writing as a "foreman" providing updates about "James," saying he was hospitalized with malaria and typhoid.

"He was saying how your condition was and saying at first, he didn't think you were going to make it. I was all upset and crying half the time and praying and crying and praying," she said. "That's when I started sending money for medicine and food and bottled water."

The relationship even included nicknames.

"He called me Sugar Momma and I called (him) Sugar Daddy," she said. "He played on my sympathies. He played on my emotions."

Weeks later, the scammer told Janice he recovered from the illness. That's when "James" sent a video to her. The video showed Swan riding in a car with Eyewitness News anchor Anne Marie Tiernon at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Adam noticed something was off.

"I kept thinking, there's something wrong with the voice. The voice in the video is not matching the voice on the phone," she said.

"James" explained it away saying he had undergone throat cancer surgery and said the accent was because he was from Liverpool, England.

"James" sent photos of Eyewitness News anchor Scott Swan and his family to help build his fictitious character's back story.

The scammer went as far as to send Adam pictures of Swan's wife and kids, saying they were his family members. He named Swans' wife, "Sarah", his son "Benson" and one of his daughters "Jenny."

Adam's suspicions grew.

"By then, I found www.catfish.com. I started reading all the other testimonies of all the other women that we're going through this," she said.

She read it. She wondered. But she still believed "James."

"I wasn't listening. And I didn't want to listen," she said. "I didn't want to hear it."

"The lies they tell are so twisted. You can't hardly unravel them," Adam said, who admitted that she fell in love with the person in the picture.

"It was you that I fell in love with. It was you," she said. "I'm talking to you. I was talking to you and texting you and telling you how I felt and pouring out all my feelings to you. I knew you as 'James.' I didn't know you were Scott."

Two years after their relationship began, it ended. Adam went on Yandex, a website known for facial recognition and learned the pictures were not "James." Adam confronted him on the phone.

"I asked him, 'How come you could do this to me? Why in the world would you do this to me?'" she asked.

Adam said the scammer confessed.

“It was like part of my heart, half of my heart was ripped from me”

"I got a complete confession out of him," she said. "I was going to take it to police. He said he had been stalking me on Facebook for a long time, but he knew I wouldn't talk to him because he was black. That's why he used your picture. He said yes, I've been posing as this guy. And he said, 'I did it because I knew you wouldn't talk to me.'"

"He'd come back, and he tried to lie his way out of it. But, I'm like 'No, I've got these pictures. You are not who you say you are. He is Scott Swan. He's a news anchor,'" she told the scammer. "He kept saying, 'If you leave me I'll starve to death because I don't have any money.' He said I won't be able to buy my medicine. I got him an apartment, and he wouldn't be able to pay for his apartment. He begged me, begged me, begged me to send him some more cards. And, I said 'No, I'm not sending you any cards.'"

Adam said the experience has scarred her.

"It was the same feeling when my husband died. It was like part of my heart, half of my heart was ripped from me. I went numb," she told Swan. "I don't think I'll ever get over it. But I'm dealing with it better. I can talk to you without breaking down crying."

Adam gave Swan the phone number for "James," which he called. The scammer hung up several times but eventually talked to Swan.

To read a transcript of the conversation, click here.

Police: Billions lost to scammers

FBI SSA Doug Kasper says "elder fraud" is a big problem. It's estimated hundreds of millions of dollars are lost annually to these scams.

The Justice Department has a website where people can report abuse.

Kasper said there are two Indiana victims who each have lost $1 million.

The scam is pretty straight forward. Scammers target elderly people, particularly those who are single or lost a loved one.

The story is often the same. The scammer claims to work on an oil rig or another business out of the country. Then the scammer requests money because something happens like they lose their ID or have a medical episode.

Victims can report this kind of scam to the FBI.

Betsy DeNardi, with the Consumer Protection Division of the AG's office, recommends scam victims file a police report or contact the FBI. The Indiana Attorney General's office has a website to submit complaints. Scam victims can also call 1-800-382-5516 to get questions answered or have the consumer complaint form mailed to them.

The AG's office said it's difficult to trace the scam back to the perpetrator. They do make attempts, but it's difficult to track down scammers.

Warning signs you're talking to a "catfish"

Here are a few common tactics scammers use. Be on the lookout for these warning signs that could identify a scammer.

  1. PICTURE PROBLEMS. Is the person's photo original? Use an image search tool like Google Images and/or Yandex to see if the same photo appears on many other websites, possibly under different names. If it does appear in many places, it suggests the photo might be stolen and person may not be who they say they are. Want to make sure their still photos are legit? Ask your online sweetie to take a verification photo holding a sign with YOUR name.
  2. NO VIDEO. Challenge your online partner to communicate via FaceTime or Skype so you can actually see who you are talking to in real time. Then see what they say. If they make excuses for weeks about why they cannot chat with you via video, that could suggest they are trying to hide their real identity or are not the person in that photo.
  3. WHAT DID YOU SAY? If the person you're dating online claims to be native to a certain region or country but has a very different dialect or accent, that is cause for concern.
  4. BON VOYAGE. A common tactic used by con artists is claiming they quickly need to leave the country. Many online scammers are overseas to begin with, and this provides a convenient explanation why they cannot meet you.
  5. NEED HELP NOW! Claims of legal trouble or other crises that require emergency funding should be met with skepticism. "Send money to get me out of jail" is a classic scam tactic for someone preying on your emotions. "Send money because I lost my wallet" and "Send money because I lost my passport and cannot get home" are other common warning signs of financial schemes to defraud you of money.
  6. HEAD OVER HEELS. Moving the relationship along very quickly should be a warning sign for online relationship. The faster a scam artist can proclaim his love and convince a victim to become emotionally invested, the sooner he can start asking for money. Real relationships take time.
  7. DOESN'T ADD UP. The more questions you ask, the more information you'll get to see if you can verify if your online Romeo or Juliet is telling the truth. Where can I send you a letter? Where do you work and what is your job title? Those are easy questions that should elicit quick responses that you can then search online to see if the answers make sense.
  8. EASILY OFFENDED. Scam artists are clever and will gaslight their potential victims, trying to make them feel guilty for asking tough questions.
  9. ALWAYS COMES DOWN TO MONEY. Online scammers are out for one thing: making money at any cost. So your finances and the size of your bank account is a big deal to them. If some of the initial conversations you have with an online prospect include questions about whether you own your own home, how much you earn, or how much you have in savings, that could be a sign they are fishing for information to determine if you are worth their time.
  10. JUST BETWEEN US. Scammers will frequently ask their victims not to tell others about their relationship. They will also try to get you to communicate via personal email and text, away from the online dating sites where they can continue to look for more potential victims.
  11. I'LL PAY YOU BACK. No they won't. Conmen in foreign countries do not send refund checks to their victims.
  12. CASH, ELECTRONICS, GIFT CARDS. Scam artists want money and items of value — any items of value. Asking you to wire money should be the most serious warning sign of an online scam. But asking for computers and gift cards is also very popular because they have instant value. Good rule of thumb: do not EVER send money, send items of value, or provide personal information such as your banking information or Social Security number to someone you have only met online.

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