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The online dating industry is big and profitable. Online dating site Bumble, owned by MagicLabs, is valued at $3 billion and Match Group, which owns sites like Tinder, Hinge, and Match.com, reported $1.7 billion in revenue in 2018. Love is a big business.
But for me, personally, online dating is no laughing matter. Every year, thousands of people are catfished online and it can take a toll – not just financially, but emotionally, too. A “catfish” is defined as someone who creates a false online identity with the intent of defrauding someone, seeking revenge or commit identity theft.
As a public figure, my image and likeness have been used in a number of dating sites and social media platforms. It might sound like fun and games until someone gets hurt — and that’s exactly what happened recently.
A few months back, the BBC reached out to me regarding their show, For Love or Money. A woman, Rachel, had been scammed by a man calling himself “Henrick Bjorn” and using my image to communicate with her. He was even able to create a video image that looked like me and spoke with her on Skype numerous times. She was convinced I was the man she fell in love with, which is really infuriating. Since Rachel is in the UK, and the show is filmed there too, the producers Skyped me (the real me) in so I could meet her, reassure her, and offer her consolation and support after this harrowing experience.
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The tricks and technology these scammers are able to conjure is something straight out of a spy movie! It’s disgusting the length that some people will go through to inflict pain.
I’ve been married to my beautiful wife, Tami, for 37 years and these online scammers have been using my personal pictures, some of which include my grandchildren, to mislead women and even steal their money. My sympathy goes out to everyone who has been scammed because it’s more common than we think.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, online dating scams are the highest total reported scam — and that’s what reported. In 2016 in the U.S., $220 million dollars were stolen by these criminals and in 2018, $143 million dollars were reported lost.
These scammers are the lowest of the low. They not only hijack the photos of well-known celebrities or executives like me, but they often position themselves as having a career or title that keeps them away from their victims. They say they have a job traveling overseas or are in the military. Anything to keep the ruse going and avoid person-to-person contact.
After gaining their victim’s trust, they will position an emergency or some type of need for immediate cash or gift card. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a handy tips sheet on their site and even a video on YouTube that explains the tactics these scoundrels use and how to report it. This is exactly how each scammer has led victims along when they’ve used my image.
So, how as executives in the c-suite, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders, do we protect ourselves and our personal brands from these online trolls? Here are three things you can do immediately if this is happening to you:
I always report this whenever possible — to as many agencies as I can. Because this happens to me all over the world, this can prove challenging. But make sure you report it to your local police, to the FTC and to the site where your image was used. If you’re on one site then most likely you’re on twenty more, all with different names.
Search the internet
As the busy executives that we are, we don’t have the time to search the internet for all of the images we’ve taken over the years to see how they’ve been used. That is why I have my public relations and social media team frequently check across the internet for my image and other representations of my brand to make sure everything is being used as it was intended.
You can do things like a reverse image search from your phone. I recommend you try it and see what comes up. It’s come to the point where we check online dating sites to see if criminals are using my image to scam others. You have to be a little paranoid to protect yourself. It’s not a bad thing.
I’ve also had an opportunity to connect directly with many of these victims, women like Rachel from the BBC program, For Love or Money. The opportunity for me to share my sympathy with them, to show them I’m a real person and we’re both victims here. At least put a human connection there. I know they’ve lost a lot. Not only money, but they’ve been hurt.
Protect your personal brand
As I speak to c-suite executives around the world, I coach them on the importance of creating and maintaining their own personal brand. There’s a study by Weber Shandwick that proves my point — they estimate that 44 percent of a company’s market value can be directly linked to the CEO’s reputation. So, I take these attacks on my personal brand seriously as they can have a direct impact on my bottom line.
I also want to make a bold statement — it is incumbent upon the industry to do better. In September, the FTC filed suit against Match Group. One of their claims against Match is that 25-30 percent of the daily sign-ups to their site are scammers. This is unacceptable. It’s time for these companies to take what I call a “Hero Mentality” and balance the billions in profit and market cap with “Hero Intensity” and take care of people. I’ve spoken to that at length in my last book, The Hero Factor. It’s time for all companies – big and small, to start taking care of the cogs that make their engines run and that is their people. That’s how you elevate your company and your culture. People first, the rest will take care of itself.
Additionally, sites like Facebook, Instagram, Google and dating sites like Match, eHarmony, Tinder and others need to step up and use the best practices, technology, and other methods readily available at their fingertips to ensure their customers and non-customers — the victims here are protected from this harassment and abuse.
This is not a victimless crime. And while no one died, it is still a serious offense and innocent people are getting hurt. It is time companies step up their game and take responsibility, demonstrate true leadership and protect their customers. Anyone using an online dating app or anyone with an online or public-facing profile needs to be aware of one of the most prevalent and predatory fraud schemes out there today. It’s no laughing matter and it’s costing everyone.