Catfishing scam is nothing new, but now is in the national spotlight

1/23/2013
BY RACHEL LENZI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick speaks to reporters earlier this month during a news conference regarding a hoax involving linebacker Manti Te'o.
Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick speaks to reporters earlier this month during a news conference regarding a hoax involving linebacker Manti Te'o.

Jack Swarbrick had no better explanation for the curious case that had enveloped the University of Notre Dame football program and linebacker Manti Te'o.

Instead of attempting to unravel a published report that claimed Te'o's girlfriend did not exist, Notre Dame's athletic director explained that Te'o was apparently the victim of an elaborate hoax that's been given a simple name.

Catfishing.

"It's perpetrated with shocking frequency for me, shocking as an older guy who's not as versed in the online world," Swarbrick said in a hastily arranged press conference in South Bend, Ind. "As hard as it is for me to get my arms around this, there's apparently some sport in doing this, in being able to do it successfully."

Yet it has nothing to do with fishing rods or reels.

It's the act of posing online as another individual or hiding one's true identity and engaging in and perpetuating a relationship that's confined to social media such as Facebook, Twitter, text messaging, and emailing.

J.A. Hitchcock, a Maine-based author and online safety advocate, explained the premise of catfishing.

"They're pretending to be someone and reeling in a victim," said Hitchcock, who founded the organization Working to Halt Online Abuse, which educates children and adults about online safety. "It's literally fishing, the act of looking for someone to fall for them and keeping the relationship going online."

Nev Schulman's 2010 movie Catfish and the MTV series of the same name, which brokers face-to-face meetings between people in online-only relationships, brought the practice to light.

In the documentary, Schulman engaged in an online relationship with a woman named Megan Faccio and traveled to northern Michigan in an attempt to meet Faccio — who was, in fact, Angela Wesselman-Pierce, a mother who created online personas as a means to forge relationships.

At the end of the movie, Ms. Wesselman-Pierce's husband, Vince, explains to Mr. Schulman that cod would lose their firmness when they were initially shipped in vats from the United States to Asia. That changed when handlers would place a catfish inside each vat before it was shipped, to keep the cod active while in transit.

One of the movie's final quotes inspired the title: "There are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh."

Hitchcock explained that "catfishing" isn't a new phenomenon. It's another iteration of a familiar scheme.

"Mainly because of the documentary, it's become more well-known to the public," Hitchcock said. "It's basically the same thing as online scamming."

According to the American Bar Association, 12 states have laws that make it a crime for an individual to impersonate someone online — but those laws don't apply to creating the persona of someone who doesn't exist.

The nature of deception is nothing new.

In the old testament of the Bible, Rebekah, the mother of Jacob and Esau, instructs Jacob to disguise himself as Esau to receive a blessing from his blind father, Isaac — a blessing intended not for Jacob but for Esau.

In mythology, the Greeks gave the Trojans a gift — a large horse that was taken inside the walls of Troy and, unknown to the Trojans, was filled with Greek warriors. Those warriors exited the horse and opened the city gates, allowing Greek forces to plunder Troy.

It's even become a part of pop culture. In 2006, Geoffrey Knoop and Laura Albert admitted they had created the persona of JT Leroy, a male prostitute and drug addict who wrote three critically acclaimed novels. Knoop's half-sister had posed as Leroy at public events.

The latest and, arguably most notable, case of deception since Schulman's 2010 movie has enveloped the Irish, a Pacific Islander, and the realm of sports.

"This has multiple layers to it," said Michael Butterworth, the chairman of the department of communications at Bowling Green State University. "It's obviously a sports story but it feels like a soap opera. It's going to appeal to a lot of people."

Te'o claimed that Lennay Kukua was his girlfriend, who had died of leukemia in September, but Deadspin.com published a report Jan. 16 that it could find no record that Kukua lived, attended Stanford, was involved in a car accident in April, or died — all claims that Te'o made when he spoke about her to the media. The report claimed that Kukua may have been fabricated by an acquaintance of Te'o.

"We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her," Te'o said in a statement. "To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating."

And if he is the victim of a hoax, as he and Notre Dame officials claimed, Te'o isn't alone.

In an entry posted last week on his personal blog (michaelroth29.wordpress.com), Michael Roth, who pitched for the University of South Carolina baseball team from 2009 to 2012, wrote that he had been taken in by a similar scheme.

Roth wrote that he received phone calls and text messages through the course of a more than a year from "Hope Porter," a woman who claimed she attended the University of Texas and had gotten his telephone number from an acquaintance in Omaha.

She continuously evaded any chance they had to meet face-to-face and finally Roth did a Google search on the phone number that kept appearing on his Caller ID.

"The number was in a few chat rooms," Roth wrote on his blog. "The guys in the chat room said they had confronted her about it. She said it was her uncle. They pushed her further.

"Finally, she said she was initially doing a project to see if someone could fall in love over the phone. She was supposed to end it after a few months, but after talking with them for a while, she enjoyed it so much that she just kept doing it."

Hitchcock can't pinpoint an individual's motivation behind creating a false online persona or continuing it, but said it could stem from revenge, bullying, or even loneliness.

"Once they get into it, and see how much the other person is falling for that false profile, they become that fake person, in a sense," Hitchcock said. "They may have gotten too far into it, to a point where they can't get out."

The common thread? From Troy to Te'o, deception somehow inspired a type of fascination, but in some cases had reckless results.

"I think that some people are looking for love," Hitchcock said. "It's not that they're naive, but they're very trusting. For Manti Te'o, to hear that voice, that probably did it for him, thinking that, ‘OK, this woman is real because I talked to her.'

"It's unfortunate that it got to this point. But if people fall for it, they look like fools. But at the same time, he believed it."

Contact Rachel Lenzi at rlenzi@theblade.com, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.