You can’t fish without bait. But in the wake of a high-profile episode involving a college athlete and his fictitious girlfriend, experts warn that “catfishing” – online romance through deception – is a rising internet risk with potentially dangerous consequences.
“People don’t realise how much they are playing with fire when they play with a person’s emotions,” said Pepper Schwartz, sociology professor at the University of Washington and an author and sexologist.
Anyone can be taken in by online catfishing scammers, she said, but people who were “experientially or emotionally naive” are particularly at risk of being duped by people they meet through the internet but not in person.
“There is a lot of delusionary behaviour and naivety on the part of a person who gets catfished,” Schwartz told RIA Novosti.
“Someone who is a little bit more experienced might say ‘something about this doesn’t smell right’.”
Catfishing, a term coined from the 2010 film “Catfish” documenting a young man’s supposed romance with a woman he met through Facebook who in fact did not exist, has come into sharp focus following an embarrassing story involving Manti Te’o, a football star with the University of Notre Dame.
In Te’o's case, the “bait” manifested itself in the form of a woman he met online named Lennay Kekua. He said the girl tragically died of leukemia last year – a gripping human drama that was amplified by numerous US media outlets which themselves fell for the tale without checking facts independently.
Te’o's story of excelling on the football field while trying to cope with the death of his girlfriend captivated the nation.
Until, that is, sport website Deadspin reported that the entire story was an elaborate hoax, forcing Te’o and his school to admit they had been catfished.
“Manti had been the victim of what appears to be a hoax in which someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia,” Notre Dame said in a statement.
According to US media reports, Te’o is by no means the only high-profile figure who has been targeted in a catfish-style scandal.
In December, the management of the Washington Redskins football team warned players to stay away from someone using a particular pseudonym after the person contacted four team members, saying the person’s entire online identity was false, according to the NFL.com website.
The consequences of catfishing, Schwartz cautioned, can be deadly as in a 2006 scam that occurred four years before the term “catfishing” was even assigned to such online threats.
In that episode, an apparently voluptuous, wealthy blonde using the name “Samantha” developed a romance with 22-year-old Cooper Jackson after the two met online.
She failed however to show up for a face to face meeting, claiming she missed the rendezvous because she had been raped.
According to local media accounts, an enraged Jackson tracked down a man who fit “Samantha’s” description of her attacker, murdered him by cutting his throat and burned his body in the woods.
Jackson’s internet love “Samantha” turned out to be an overweight 22-year-old high school dropout who worked as a hotel clerk in North Carolina.
The girl bore no resemblance to her online photos and confessed she had made the entire identity up because she had “low self-esteem”.
To avoid falling for the online bait, relationship experts suggest giving Internet companions a deadline of no more than one month from the initial meeting before arranging a meeting in person.
Those who date online should also conduct an online search to verify the information provided during conversations.
“If someone starts making excuses as to why they can’t meet, end it,” Schwartz said.
(Sasha Horne is a writer for Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency)