Maidstone RCMP are investigating three cases of catfishing and sextortion involving teenage boys and young men between the ages of 14 and 30.
There may be multiple perpetrators, police say.
Police say the scammers use fake online personas to entice victims to send nude photos of themselves. After that, they demand money and threaten to share the photos with the victim's contacts.
RCMP in Maidstone say the catfishing reports came in from October to December. The names of the three victims are being kept confidential.
The scammers are presenting themselves as young women on platforms like Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram.
"The MO for the scammers definitely seems to be similar. What they'll do is they try to build a general rapport and they'll send the victim sensitive images and then entice the the victim to send sensitive images back to them and kind of put the onus on to the sender," said Noah Devine of the Maidstone RCMP.
Devine said he cannot confirm or deny if the three investigations are related at this time. The victims do not appear to be known to each other, he said.
This catfishing scam comes after Calgary police sounded the alarm in June about dozens of young people, including minors, being tricked into sending intimate photos followed by threats of extortion.
In the first five months of 2022, Calgary police received 48 sextortion reports, mainly about teenage boys being targeted.
What catfishers do
Alec Couros knows all about catfishing. His image has been used without his consent for 15 long years.
The University of Regina educational technology and media professor said fraudsters use his face to start an online romantic relationship, then ask the victim for money.
"My photos have been used in thousands of catfishing schemes around the world, and they have been used to victimize mostly middle-aged women," said Couros.
Couros said he used to get daily victim reports and now gets them weekly.
"The perpetrators are most likely outside of Canada and outside of the jurisdiction of any of our legal agencies. So it becomes very difficult for for the RCMP and the local police to do anything about these things."
Couros said that in other cases, catfishers often use images from an Instagram model or adult film actress.
"The reason they might do that is because they can they can share images with the young victims and they might be expecting the same back."
Matthew Johnson, director of education at MediaSmarts, a national research and education organization that promotes digital media literacy, said that two out of three times, the catfisher is known to the victim.
Johnson said sextortion is unusual in that the typical targets tend to be young men and teen boys, whereas in other cases of of sexual exploitation, young women tend to be the targets.
"LGBTQ youth are targeted more often, and certainly we can see that they might be more susceptible to being extorted, particularly if they have family that they may not have shared their sexual orientation or identity with. Or if they're in a community where they may not have felt comfortable being public with that identity," Johnson said.
He said that some people targeted with sextortion might be reluctant to come forward.
"It would make them feel as though they don't have a way out and and that's one of the reasons why it is so important for parents to speak to our kids about healthy sexuality. To make sure they feel that they are comfortable coming to us with any kind of problems or negative experiences that they have online," Johnson said.
Meanwhile, Couros said many catfish victims tend to be over the age of 60 because they usually have money and aren't as media or internet savvy.
However, Couros said young men can be targets because they are often unexperienced.
"Young people are particularly vulnerable because they're very new to relationships. They're only fed what the media gives to them. They're exploring, they're not sure exactly how a relationship works out," Couros said.
How to spot a catfisher
Devine said the RCMP wants to help people recognize the indicators of a scam.
He said people should be vigilant when getting an unsolicited text message. Devine suggested searching the internet to see if the person that contacted them regularly posts messages and pictures. He warned people to be wary of anyone who is a new user of whatever platform they are communicating on and anyone who does not have an online history.
"Those are all huge red flags when it comes to communicating with those individuals online, because oftentimes they're not who they portray themselves to be, and they're not legitimate accounts. So sending sensitive information to those accounts can be very, very risky," said Devine.
Couros said an easy trick for finding a catfisher is to try to identify if the images are being reused.
"Download the image off their profile pic and then upload it to images.google.com. And you can see where it might exist on the web. So if you see the same profile picture all over the web and multiple profiles, that's certainly a red flag."
In the meantime, the RCMP has put the Maidstone victims in touch with victims services, who then connect them with counselling and aftercare.
"Part of the investigation is making sure that the victim is taken care of, especially at the beginning stages," said Devine.