Kiwis are losing more money each year to online fraudsters who use romance scams to con their unsuspecting targets.

Figures from the consumer watchdog show that victims lost more than $7.9 million in the first three months of 2018 from cases reported to NetSafe.

And then there is the more confounding behaviour of catfishing in which someone deliberately deceives a person by carrying on an online relationship with them while pretending to be someone else for their own self gratification, reports news.com.au.

The phenomenon has arisen in the age of social media and the culprits rely on stolen or edited photos usually taken from an unwitting third party to form their fake identity. It sounds strange but as people spend more of their daily lives online, there is no shortage of examples — and some end in tragedy.

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But there are ways to guard against such insidious online behaviour.

HOW TO SPOT A CATFISH

Writing in The Conversation this week, Dr Cassandra Cross, a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Queensland University of Technology offered some tips on clues to look for when trying to spot a catfish.

She has researched romance fraud for more than a decade and says online deception is difficult to guard against because it's hard to tell people — or for people to admit — that the person they love isn't real.

Your typical online romance scam builds towards a request for money but catfishing can just be about the psychological manipulation or game-playing.

"But there are similar signs to look out for," she wrote. "A refusal to meet in person or sometimes to communicate via other social media platforms," are among the more obvious red flags.

Inconsistencies in the stories of the perpetrator should also give you pause for thought.

But it's not always so easy. Former Australian Idol winner Casey Donovan spoke about her experience getting catfished with Andrew Denton this week on Channel 7's Interview program after she carried on a well publicised long-term phone relationship with a woman who pretended to be a man for six years.

"Hope kept me there," she recalled, and the thought that "no-one could actually do that to another human being".

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But most catfishing cases occur online with offenders using stolen or edited photos to portray themselves.

If you're suspicious, "sometimes, a simple reverse image search on pictures used by the catfish may provide answers," Dr Cross says. You can simply upload a photo to Google's Image Search and it will find similar images.

It's very simple to reverse search a picture on Google Images. Photo / Supplied
It's very simple to reverse search a picture on Google Images. Photo / Supplied

With Google owning probably the largest database of images on the web, chances are high that you find that (or at least a similar) photo that will provide clues as to the veracity of the person's identity.

Often the image can be slightly doctored but you might find the original one, or images suspiciously similar, in news articles or on social media sites like Facebook, Instagram or Reddit.

For instance, British Instagram star Jessica Hunt discovered in 2017 a picture she had posted was photoshopped and used to create a fake online profile. A reverse Google Image search would've revealed the fraud.

An Australian woman to be sentenced next month tormented her victims while impersonating soap star Lincoln Lewis.

WHY DO PEOPLE CATFISH?

There is limited research on the phenomenon of catfishing and those who engage in it. But a social neuroscientist at the University of Queensland, Dr Eric Vanman, has spent time interviewing offenders to understand what made them tick.

After infiltrating a forum dedicated to catfishing, Dr Vanman and a student of his recruited

27 people from around the world who self-identified as catfish to be interviewed and were surprised by what motivated them.

One woman, who pretended to be a man online, spoke about how it allowed her to explore what it would feel like to court a fellow female.

"I was catfishing women because I am attracted to women but have never acted on it," she told the researchers. "I pretend to be a man as I would prefer to be in the male role of a heterosexual relationship than a female in a homosexual relationship."

This woman found her social media pictures were being used by a catfish. Photo / Supplied
This woman found her social media pictures were being used by a catfish. Photo / Supplied

Certain offenders reported a desire to use the experience to explore their sexuality and see what it was like to have a relationship with somebody of the same gender.

"That was something we didn't expect to see, we found that really interesting," Dr Vanman told news.com.au last year.

Some reported having self-esteem problems and said it helped ease their loneliness, while others said it was a form of escapism.

Some culprits admitted to be addicted to the feeling of carrying on the deception and it was common for those catfishing to have numerous victims. "We had some people who had done it nine or 10 times," Dr Vanman said.

"They mostly tended to do it in a serial fashion, they'd get done with one and then start up with another one."

The move was often because the original relationship had gotten out of control and they feared they would be discovered, he said. "Most of them feel quite badly about it, they feel very guilty."

Many of the people he interviewed never told their victim the truth about who they were and just "ghosted" them, Dr Vanman recalled.

"So the person never knew they were actually having a catfish experience in the first place."