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TV | Hunting The Catfish Crime Gang

James Blake standing by yellow sports car in underground carpark

Lisburn man James Blake

James Blake - a 30-year-old entrepreneur from Lisburn - was living the insta-dream until someone scraped his accounts, and he started getting messages from people accusing him of conning them out of tens of thousands of pounds.

As he sets out to try and get his face and name back in a new documentary, James discovers a dark and utterly heartless modern day crime wave where ruthless organised gangs are using the very latest technology to prey on our age-old desire for love, companionship and success, all to scam blameless victims out of money.

His attempt to find out more and get his online identity back takes him on an international journey and he discovers that shockingly it’s not only those being conned who are the victims here - many of those carrying out the con are suffering too - at the hands of gangs behind this modern-day crime.

Hunting the Catfish Crime Gang airs on Tuesday 24 October on BBC One and BBC One Northern Ireland at 10.40pm

James Blake standing by bonnet of green sports car in Belfast city centre

Interview with James Blake

When did you first come to realise there were fake Blake accounts on social media?

A couple of years ago somebody messaged me to say they had come across a fake account of mine. My first thought was that it was quite amusing as I didn’t have any understanding of the darker side of it at that point. I reported it and over the next couple of months there were more of them appearing and becoming more sophisticated.

All of a sudden, I was looking at profiles that had thousands of followers featuring all of my most up-to-date content. They had pictures of my car, my friends, my family, our offices and my team - everything. At that point, I started to worry because it was getting out of control.

When did you start to take it more seriously?

It became even more intense when I started getting messages from people who said they were following me on dating apps and messages from people who had been scammed and had lost money. That's when it got really scary because it went from a couple of fake profiles to advanced looking profiles with tons of content.

Every day I would get three or four messages from women who were supposedly dating me. One woman said she had been dating me for six months after we met online. One woman said she lost £800, another couple of women lost £1000 and one even said she had lost £50,000. From that point on it became very concerning.

Why do you think that you were targeted by the scammers?

I think it's because of the quantity of content and the type of image I portray online. I make lots of content. Sometimes my team joke with me and say I'm like a content factory for the scammers.

Whenever we create something, we know there’s a chance it might be used by the scammers but, equally, we can't just stop - it's a double edged sword. And because my social media profile shows me living what could be viewed as an aspirational lifestyle, it’s very often this type of person the scammers look to impersonate.

James Blake and Lillie the dog indoors

James Blake and Lillie the dog

How has it impacted you?

After a while, I felt helpless. I’d been reporting the fake profiles and doing everything I could to take them down and it wasn’t stopping. Some mornings I'd wake up and see negative messages from people.

One woman, who had been scammed, started commenting on my appearance. She also went on an ex-girlfriend’s profile and started writing negative comments about her photos.

• Tell us why you wanted to make this documentary.

I hope the documentary will open people's eyes to what's going on. The horrific reality is that there is a hierarchy of victims involved which I realised when I visited Thailand.

By the end of the documentary, I don't think a single person will be able to look at a fake profile the same way again, because I haven't been able to.

It's not just the person they've impersonated and the person they're actively scamming. The person who's doing the scamming is also often a victim of trafficking and abuse.

Did you have any idea of organised crime involved in these scams?

Not at all and I eat, sleep and breathe digital. My whole world is online. So if I don't know about it, what chance has somebody who's not so active online got?

As we went through the process, and I started to unwrap the layers of what's going on, it got more and more scary.

I’m sure many people, myself included, have assumed someone must have to be naive to lose money as a victim to a scammer online. I now know that anybody could become a victim to this. I think the shame people may have if they've been scammed needs to be eradicated because then more people will come forward and share their story, and then we get closer to stopping this.

How did you find meeting the women who had been scammed by the fake Blake accounts?

I felt terrible that it was my face used to scam these women. I don’t get nervous very often, but when I went to the park to meet one of the victims I was really nervous as I was so aware of the impact this would have had on their life.

I don't come from a wealthy family, so I know that every penny matters, and no matter if you lost five hundred pounds, or fifty thousand pounds, it's all relative to your situation. Somebody losing five hundred pounds could be the difference to them eating or clothing their kids that month.

To actually talk to people that have lost money to someone they thought was me was a really horrible feeling, but I was glad I got the opportunity to do it because I think and hope it allows them an element of closure.

Your journey of hunting the Catfish gang brought you to Thailand. What did you find out there and how did you find that experience?

It was a tough week mentally, as the whole time I was there I was learning and talking to people about these really bad things that are happening. However, I met people who are doing incredible work and fighting constantly for people that are being neglected, trafficked and abused.

Meeting those people gave me hope and I left Thailand feeling relieved that there are actually good people out there, genuinely wanting to help. I'm glad that the documentary is shining light on the work they're doing, because it's amazing.

Tell me what you learned about scamming and the whole organisation that most surprised you?

One of the most surprising elements was how sophisticated the whole operation is. These people are operating in fully furnished offices, much like the one I work in. There's millions of pounds invested into the infrastructure of these operations and I was very surprised by that. I think you imagine these people operating out of a shack somewhere that barely has Internet, not somewhere that wouldn't look out of place in Canary Wharf. That's how sophisticated these operations are.

Will you do anything differently in terms of what you do on social media or online as a result of what has happened to you?

I don’t think posting less is the answer, I think it’s being more aware of what you’re sharing online. Regardless of what I post, it will still be used by the scammers and once you put it out there, you lose control over it.

If you are talking to somebody online, you need to make sure they're verified in some way, especially if you’re developing something romantic with somebody. That being said, it’s not easy - somebody told me they were talking to a fake profile of myself on a dating site, but the profile had a blue tick as if it was verified. The scammers are just getting better and better at what they do.

What do you think should be done in terms of moving forward in this?

The social media platforms are such a powerful tool that can be used for so many good things. But equally, this has brought up a huge issue and negative side to social media and I believe the vast majority is preventable by the platforms themselves. When I’ve reported a fake profile in the past, at times, one of the social media sites has come back to say they don’t go against community guidelines. I’m not sure it’s being checked and scrutinised enough.

What advice would you give to somebody who finds themselves in a similar situation to you?

One of the first things to do is report the fake profile. Secondly, try to make people aware that it’s not you behind the fake profile. Thirdly, be cautious about what you post. You can also do things like watermark your images, but I know a lot of content creators don’t want to do that because it ruins the content.

Also, I’ve learned a lot of the people behind these fake profiles tend to follow the person they’re targeting, usually with a random account with no photos or followers so look out for them.


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