'His own son': Woman's sick discovery of lover's identity
Susannah Birch was just 15 years old when she first met "Richard" online.
For 12 years the pair maintained an online relationship that varied in degrees of intimacy - at one point even getting engaged despite never meeting in person.
It was more than a decade before Ms Birch discovered the man she thought she knew was, in fact, a grandfather in his 60s.
"He said he was from Mackay and was 17 years old," she tells news.com.au. "Within a few weeks, we were in an online relationship. Within six months we were talking by phone.
"At one point, when my father was out of town, we talked by phone for 18 hours of 24. The relationship involved sexually explicit things."
Though Ms Birch often questioned why they couldn't meet, Richard's answers seemed logical - his parents were overprotective, he was still in high school and didn't have the budget to drive for eight hours.
"He never asked for money and our relationship often meant hours of talking - surely, if he was a scammer or bad person, he wouldn't invest so many hours in our relationship," Ms Birch can recall thinking at the time.
The pair online dated for three years, and when Ms Birch was 18, Richard proposed.
"I was ecstatic that I'd finally meet him," she says. "Two weeks later he broke up with me over something trite.
"That was the final straw for me - I decided our romantic relationship was over. We continued talking, however, and he'd spend the next nine years lamenting that I was the one who got away."
Though Ms Birch married and had children, the pair continued to talk on the phone and via email.
"He'd send photos now and again, and they all seemed to age appropriately over the years," she said.
It wasn't until Ms Birch watched a television show called Catfish that she became suspicious and engaged a professional service that discovered Richard's identity within 24 hours of receiving his latest email.
"Twelve years after our first meeting in that chatroom, I confronted Richard - he was a grandfather in his 60s. He'd faked his name and his identity," Ms Birch says.
"Worst of all - the photos he'd sent were of his own son."
Unfortunately, men like Richard are more common within the online dating world than you might think.
In fact, statistics suggest there are more than 25,000 online romance scammers operating at any one time.
"Catfishing involves someone pretending to be who they are not for the express purpose of luring someone into a relationship. Invariably, the motives are nefarious," says relationship counsellor Susan De Campo.
"At a very simplistic level, people who engage in this duplicitous behaviour have a moral compass that is very different from those of us that believe in upholding the law, being honest and truthful and treating people with respect and kindness," she says.
So, why do they do it? Ms De Campo says the reasons, generally, are two-fold.
"Firstly, they want to gain something - almost always, money," she says. "Secondly, some people get pleasure from 'the game' of tricking someone else and the feeling of power and control that this gives them."
It's easy to wonder how people fall victim to behaviour that seems so clearly problematic from the outside looking in, but Ms De Campo says the desire to feel connected can be so primal it can override the ability to be judicious.
"Emotional neediness is a very strong driving force and it doesn't have to be excessive," she says.
"Chronic loneliness, emotional trauma and/or pain can also make someone vulnerable to the tactics of catfish."
So compelling is the feeling, Ms De Campo says, the facade can continue for months, even years.
"If the catfish is very good at their 'job' and the victim does not have someone who can intervene, then the abuse can continue for a very long time," she says.
Holly Barrter from Matchsmith.com.au, an online dating concierge service, says as online scammers become savvier, it's important for daters to maintain a healthy cynicism about who they are chatting with.
"There is so much to be wary of when online dating," she says.
"You might come across individuals requesting money from you early on in your contact because of a dramatic family event, requesting direct deposits so they can see you in person or to afford airline tickets etc.
"Other cons can be people who are aiming to get explicit photos from you without any intention of meeting you, and these people keep these photos as a collection before moving on to the next victim."
While online scammers choose their targets carefully, using tried and tested strategies, Ms Barrter says there are some red flags to look out for, including:
• Matching with someone with very few photos of themselves
• Photos that look dated or like a stock photo or modelling shots
• Chatting with someone for weeks on end with no suggestion or intention of a meet-up
• Attempted meetings that are cancelled at the last minute with an elaborate excuse
"Keep an eye out for people who say they are based in your city but are always travelling elsewhere or planning a trip to visit you without anything eventuating," Ms Barrter says.
"Major red flags are, of course, anyone who attempts to get money, gifts or intimate photos from you early on and with odd circumstances."
But online dating sites aren't the only places catfish go to find their victims.
Sarah's* daughter Jessie* fell victim to catfishing via Instagram.
"My daughter was in an extra-curricular group that met once a week after school, and she became friends with one of the boys," Sarah says.
"It was very platonic and he suggested that she become friends with one of his female 'friends' who lived in Sydney but was on Instagram."
Jessie did so and over time developed a closeness with the girl, exchanging messages regularly and confiding in each other.
"I came home one day and Jessie was upset because her 'friend' had died suddenly," Sarah says. "She'd received an email from the friend's 'mother' advising her of the death and suggesting she seek comfort from the boy who was in the group.
"It was all very odd, and I knew no mother who had just lost a daughter to suicide would be writing a comforting email to someone she had never even met.
"Eventually, I got to the bottom of it, and it turned out that the 17-year-old boy had been masquerading as the 'friend, and they had been DMing for a month or so via Instagram. He was also responsible for sending the email."
While the boy's intentions are unknown and Jessie was upset by the deception, Sarah says it served as a positive lesson.
"She realised that the implications of making 'friends' with someone and divulging information can be quite dangerous," Sarah says.
"Most young girls are impressionable and vulnerable and social media gives a false sense of intimacy."
For adults who fall victim to catfishing scams, the consequences can be catastrophic, not only financially but emotionally too.
"Very often these victims suffer with a type of grief known as disenfranchised grief," says Ms De Campo.
"The shame and embarrassment at being so badly duped is such that people often just retreat into a really dark place.
"They may not feel as though they deserve emotional support because they made such a foolish decision.
"There is a loss of future hope of a happy life together, the feeling of belonging and love that may have felt so real and so important.
"As if that's not bad enough, the emotional impact can be even worse if there are significant financial losses involved. Having to deal with the loss of financial security can also be devastating."
For Ms Birch, discovering the identity of her catfish was a vindication, having sensed something was off for some time.
"Catfish don't always fit the obvious mould of predator or scammer. Their motive may be money or low self-esteem or revenge or porn or loneliness or trolling or a dozen other reasons.
"A catfish can be a person you meet on a pregnancy group, on Tinder, in a hobby forum or any other place online.
"These days, it's so easy to build up a whole fake persona online, especially if the persona is used regularly."
But Ms Barrter says it's important to be alert, not alarmed.
"It is still a rarity, so it's important not to approach all online dating in fear of this happening.
"It is awful when it happens but not a common occurrence. It's important to know how to read the signs and cut off any communication that doesn't feel right."
Nicole Madigan is a freelance journalist. Continue the conversation @NicoleLMadigan