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Manti Te'o, 'catfishing' and online cons

The Notre Dame star may or may not have been the victim of a girlfriend hoax. But the con artists are definitely out there.

By MSN Money Partner Jan 18, 2013 2:31PM

This post comes from MSN Money contributor Michelle V. Rafter.


File photo of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o on Nov. 17, 2012 (© Michael Conroy/AP Photo)It’s a story line right out of "Catfish: The TV Show," MTV's series that gets behind the screens of online romances.


Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o has publicly confirmed a news report that the girlfriend he claimed died of cancer last fall, whom he'd talked about with coaches, teammates and in numerous interviews, never existed.

The university’s athletic director has defended Te'o, a runner-up for the 2012 Heisman Trophy, calling the star linebacker the victim of an elaborate hoax involving a relationship that existed only online and over the phone. In a statement, Te'o called it a "sick joke" that was "painful and humiliating," though the court of public opinion appears to believe he played some part in the drama.


If Te'o was a victim, it wouldn’t be the first -- or last -- time someone has been duped into thinking they're in an online relationship with someone who turns out to be a fraud.

For better or worse, online relationships are a phenomenon of the Internet age, especially among people ages 18 to 35 who live glued to their phones, all the better to share the details of their lives in text messages and tweets. While it's not common, it is possible to have a romantic relationship that's principally online, says J. Sage Elwell, a Texas Christian University professor who studies digital culture.

This has led to the strange phenomenon of "catfishing," in which one person creates a fake persona to pursue a romantic relationship.

The term comes from "Catfish," a 2010 documentary that followed photographer Nev Schulman as he goes to rural Michigan to visit the "girl" he’s been involved with online only to find out she's a fictional character created by married mother of three.


Schulman is an executive producer of the spinoff “Catfish: The TV Show,” which began airing in November. In it, he, a cameraman and an MTV crew help people meet their online loves, who more often than not end up not being who they’ve made themselves out to be. 

"It's relational fraud, usually crafted in such a way it meets the desires of the person being fished for," Elwell says. In other words, if you're fooling someone and you know they're interested in dance, you create a fictitious person who loves dance in order to dupe them into believing "they've found the perfect person," he says.


Discovering the object of your online affection is a phony can hurt just as much as a real-life breakup, according to Elwell. "You're losing this idea type that's been particularly constructed for you," he says. "On one side it's falling hard, and on the other, you’ve got a radically broken heart."

Other college athletes have been caught in the catfish trap. In 2006, University of Southern California basketball player Gabe Pruitt got taken when fans of the rival University of California Berkeley's men's basketball team created a student named "Victoria" who chatted with him by instant message the week before the teams were scheduled to play.

As the game started, Cal fans stunned Pruitt by chanting "Victoria" and passing out transcripts of the chats, a feat that crippled his shooting percentage in the game and landed the stunt on Sports Illustrated’s list of 10 best college sports pranks.


Romance scams

While some online relationship scams break hearts, others are after money.

Con artists troll dating sites and other online venues, hoping to ingratiate themselves to someone and then use a variety of ruses to extract money from them.

"It's a good thing if you meet someone online to try to meet them in person, because unless you meet them face to face and date you may never know" who they really are, says Jenny Shearer, an FBI spokeswoman.

Giveaways that someone might be scamming you: Photos they share look too professional or stylized, they say they want to visit but continuously cancel plans at the last minute, or they ask for money for the trip. The FBI offers tips for recognizing online dating scams.

About a dozen states have adopted laws making it a crime to impersonate someone else online.

If you think you’ve been the victim of an online romance gone bad, you can report it to the Internet Crime Complaint Center, a partnership of the FBI and National White Collar Crime Center, which reviews approximately 300,000 complaints a year.

"The reality is if you've lost several hundred or thousand dollars, we're not going to open a federal case," but reporting someone could help investigators determine if you've been the target of organized fraud, Shearer says.

Apparently, not everyone thinks having a fake online girlfriend is a bad thing. For $39.99, a Brazilian website called NamoroFake will create an imaginary girlfriend that guys can use to show off to buddies or make an ex jealous.

More on MSN Money:

You would have to be the scum of the earth to make up a fake woman to woe a man.  This reminds me of the very vicious mom who made up a fake boy to woo a troubled teen who had made an enemy of her and her teenaged daughter.  By the time mom was finished, the kid killed herself and both she and her daughter were driven out of town by outraged neighbors.
Jan 18, 2013 3:21PM

I think he's crazy and just putting on the show for attention.

Jan 18, 2013 4:29PM
I remember the old "Image is everything" commercials with disdain. Unfortunately, such pervades too many in our society. It's time for substance and content of character to take center stage.
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