It was a story that rocked the news. When linebacker Manti Te’o and his Notre Dame Fighting Irish took the field to play Alabama University in the BCS National Championship, he would play the game in honor of his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, who recently died from a tragic battle with leukemia. It was the sort of love story that inspires Disney movies. There was just one problem — none of it was true.
Te’o was duped by what is now commonly known as a “catfishing” scandal, an elaborate hoax that uses a fake social media persona to trick the victim into a deceptive online relationship. Though Te’o considered Kekua to be his girlfriend, he’d never actually met her in person because she was actually Roniah Tuiasosopo, the man behind the online mask.
The scandal happened eight months ago, but popular shows like MTV’s “Catfish” keep the concept in the news and relevant to our culture. Since the incident with Te’o, several professional athletes came forward with their own catfish stories proving that the scam commonly happens to people across the United States. The data on just how many people are catfished each year is inconsistent, but reports pop up all over the country. So are we really living in a “catfish culture?”
Coincidentally, just a few months before the Manti Te’o story, MTV launched its newest documentary series “Catfish,” which covers the same topic of victims falling into relationships with false online personas. The show is led by Nev Schulman who follows a potential victim searching for the persona on the other side of the online profile and eventually confronting them face to face. Most of the time, the perpetrator turns out to be a farce and the victim experiences public humiliation and embarrassment.
With a successful first-season run, “Catfish” is now in its second season and sharing more ridiculous attempts at fraudulent online relationships. But the show is treading dangerous waters by creating a “‘Teen Mom’ effect” in which viewers start to glamorize what they see on television. The issue with “Catfish” is that the consequences of the hoax are not always negative.
In one of the first season’s first episodes, a woman undergoing hormone therapy to become a man created a fake Facebook account to start a relationship with a woman whom Schulman was following for that episode. When the woman finally confronts her online “boyfriend,” she accepts the person on the other side and the two start a genuine relationship together. Imagine, catfishing can lead you to your soul mate.
Catfishing isn’t just a cute prank that might work out; it could actually put you behind bars. An 18 year old from Rutherford, New Jersey, is charged with making false statements to a U.S. official after he allegedly created a fake teenage girl named Kate Brianna Fulton online and reported her missing to an American embassy, NorthJersey.com reports. The accused, Andriy Mykhaylivsky, created the fake persona to catfish a male classmate of his and could now face up to five years in prison if convicted.
With the growing number of incidents, prevent catfishing in your own life in the following ways:
- Observe details behind any social media account for authenticity, including age of the account, number of friends/followers and amount of pictures.
- Use Google’s “search by image” feature to see if a person’s profile picture belongs to a different (and more authentic) account.
- Employ an identity theft protection service like Lifelock to help prevent your own name from being used by others trying to catfish.
- Ask to meet. If the person on the other side is authentic, they’ll likely say yes. If they’re resistant, it’s a red flag.
Trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, or if the situation seems too good to be true, it probably is. Skepticism is your best friend in protecting your heart and avoiding romantic devastation.