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Ever since the 2010 documentary “Catfish" was released, I’ve been fascinated by this idea of elaborate Internet dating hoaxes. The notion that someone would dedicate so much time to building a fake life and extensive fake network of friends and family, and use it to deceive others — frankly, it blew my mind.

So when the Manti Te’o scandal came to light last week, I grew equally as fascinated. Not only was the story so bizarre and, at this point still somewhat mysterious, but it’s happened so publicly. The bottom line is questions must be answered.

Getting ‘catfished’

In case you’ve never heard of the term, here’s a little about its origin.

(Filmmakers Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost and Nev Schulman, from left.)

The term “catfish” comes from a 2010 documentary film of the same name, in which a young New Yorker named Nev Schulman has an online relationship with a woman on Facebook that turns out to be much different than it appears. It’s hard to say much more without giving away the ending.

I saw this in theaters when it came out, and it made me think. I’d definitely recommend it. But it didn’t stop there — the film spawned a TV show that debuted recently on MTV. It has a similar premise: People who have developed online relationships seek to learn more about their purported lovers, often discovering unexpected realities.

The Manti Te’o tie-in

I’m pretty sure the world did a collective “HUH?!” when a Jan. 16 Deadspin article came out, saying that Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s girlfriend — the one who allegedly died of leukemia the same day his grandmother died, and who was at the center of many, many news stories — never existed in the first place.

(Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te’o after the Nov. 12 game.)

The article revealed that it was all an elaborate hoax. It asserted that Lennay Kekua, the college girl whom Te’o had talked very publicly about and whom he told the world he loved, was a complete fabrication. The details in the story seemed to indicate there was a very complicated web of lies behind this hoax.

It was, and continues to be, largely a mystery. Details are still coming out; reports are still being investigated. But, to me, it indicates something even bigger: Te’o is insisting he’s been “catfished.”

Hitting close to home

Of course, whenever I take on a topic for a column, I try to find some kind of local, East Tennessee tie-in. I want to help make issues relatable for our readers. So it seemed a bit too good to be true when I saw this tweet by Cami Webb:


Cami Webb, a Gatlinburg native and UT grad currently living in Orlando, had been contacted out of the blue by Christopher Waldron, a student at Syracuse. Waldron alerted her that someone was using her photos to do some “catfishing” of their own.

"So this Te’o thing got me thinking. There’s been this drop dead beautiful girl flirting with me on Facebook. Profile is pretty sketch and no one knows her. I did a reverse picture search and this person is using your pictures. It’s odd but I knew something was up. Name is Venessa Beckwith in Oswego, NY… Who does not exist," Waldron wrote to Webb.

Webb was startled by the random email.

"I initially was shocked, and then felt taken advantage of. This person was using my images to apparently flirt with random guys on the Internet. Even more discomforting was that the profile had been up since 2011. It makes me wonder if there are other imposters out there that I may very well never find," Webb told me.

She proceeded to message “Venessa” and report “her” to Facebook, in addition to enlisting the help of her friends to also report the profile. Although she never received a response from “Venessa,” she did hear back from Facebook days later.

"They (told me they) didn’t find anything wrong with the profile. Turns out she did end up deleting all my photos  — which is all I really wanted," Webb said.

How to spot a ‘catfish’

Just because some people have been duped by fake online profiles doesn’t mean it isn’t OK to engage with people you don’t know online. It does, however, mean you should be more cautious.

When I asked Waldron about his experience with “Venessa” and tracking down Webb, here’s what he told me:

“It was just common sense. There was not much info on the profile, vague answers, and let’s face it, models don’t send Facebook messages to strangers for dates. … Back in the summer, I knew it was a fake profile so I did not pay much attention to it. It was when the Te’o news broke when I said ‘hmm…’ “

Waldron did a reverse image search, which led him to Webb. His advice to others?

"I just think people should pay attention to red flags and bad excuses, like they can’t meet for coffee because their cat got run over for the fifth week in a row, etc."


Tools to help

The unfortunate truth is that these kinds of Internet dating hoaxes are more common than you might think, which is why it’s important to understand the best ways to guard against it.

“As long as we continue to be lax with our online presence, impersonation will happen,” Webb cautions.

Here are some of the best tips and tools to combat both online identity theft and being duped by a fraud.

  • Understand privacy settings and how best to control them, across all digital platforms and social networking sites. Social networking is great, but too much personal information can make you an easy target. The more someone knows about you, the easier you’ll be to victimize.
  • Use reverse-image searches such as TinEye.com to see if your photos might appear anywhere else online, or if photos of someone you’re communicating with match someone else’s.
  • Set up a Google alert for your name. That way, whenever you’re mentioned on the Web, you’ll know. You can also set up alerts for other people’s names or specific phrases, if you’re suspicious. (It’s free, by the way.)
  • Be wary of people you’ve met online: If you’ve never met in real life or Skyped, why not? At the very least, insist on video chatting. It’s not that hard to find a way to make it work.
  • Be especially suspicious of “models.” As many have noted, models don’t typically look to strangers online for dating or companionship. (It’s possible, but unlikely.)
  • If you want an instant kind of “proof,” have someone hold up a piece of paper with something specific written on it — your name and date, perhaps.
  • Use your best judgment, always. Proceed with caution and understand that sometimes, if it seems too good to be true, it might just be.
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