Originally published in the Journal Inquirer Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013
By Kristen J. Tsetsi
Sometime during the 2013 Superbowl broadcast, former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o deleted his Twitter account, according to a Feb. 6 ESPN.com report. It’s not known if his decision was made because of the media’s reaction to Te’o’s claims that he was a victim of “catfishing,” slang for impersonating or misrepresenting oneself online with an intent to deceive.
The overall response from the media was to question and/or criticize Te’o’s two-year relationship with a woman he’d never met in person and who was later discovered to have been a man playing a female role online.
A segment of an interview between television journalist Katie Couric and Te’o opened the Jan. 25 episode of the MSNBC program “Morning Joe” hosted by Joe Scarborough. In the interview segment, Couric responds to Te’o’s account of a supposed technological malfunction preventing him from seeing his “girlfriend” via live video chat by asking, “Didn’t you think that was a little weird?” When Te’o says no, Couric counters, “Are you that technologically challenged?”
Following the interview clip, “Morning Joe” begins, the snickering of the hosts accompanying the opening long-shot of Times Square. Scarborough introduces a conversation about Te’o by asking why an in-demand football player would date someone online for two years without ever seeing her in person.
“I think the guy’s a little … maybe the wiring isn’t all …,” guest host and former treasury official Steve Rattner hesitantly offers at one point.
The implication is that the person who falls victim to catfishing is to blame for being fooled. But even experts can be taken in by the mind-play.
Tolland, Conn. clinical psychologist Joseph Nowinski has met both catfish and victim in his line of work, including a psychologist who was swindled out of thousands of dollars. Anyone can be vulnerable, he says.
“Somebody’s having hard times and something comes across that sounds real to them that they could make money at,” he says. Another target trait is simple emotional vulnerability. “Emotional vulnerability happens all the time on dating sites. There are a lot of people who go onto sites like Match.com and they’re very sincere, trying to find a match, but there are others who are very predatory and make up a persona and go fishing with it,” Nowinski says.
It’s often vulnerability more than naiveté that makes someone susceptible to such predators, Nowinski explains. Victims, he says, can be very intelligent and highly successful and still be vulnerable, perhaps not aware of how much they’re hurting, how powerful their need to have someone pay attention to them, or how lonely they are.
He likens catfish to old-school con artists.
“Like someone who might go door to door to sell insurance policies to old people,” he says. “Traditionally, these predators had to do a lot of footwork, but the Internet is a breeding ground for all kinds of predators.”
What drives the predators’ behavior varies. Sometimes they want personal information so they can gain access to finances, sometimes the motivation is sex, and sometimes it’s emotional gratification.
“For some, it may just be the sheer joy of bringing somebody down,” Nowinski says. “It could be somebody famous or a politician. It’s emotionally gratifying to bring someone down or seduce them.”
In the case of Yaniv “Nev” Schulman, creator of the documentary “Catfish” and the follow-up MTV reality series “Catfish: The TV Show,” the predator’s true motive may never be known, but the outcome was that Schulman discovered that Megan, the 19-year-old singer/songwriter he thought he was communicating with online, was actually a 40-year-old woman named Angela. The documentary is video footage of his surprise visit to Michigan to meet “Megan.”
“It was not exactly what I was hoping for,” Schulman said in an interview on the ABC program “The View.”
He went on to explain that looking back, it might seem obvious that he was being manipulated; at the time he believed he was friends with Megan’s mother, her cousin, and her little sister. Over the course of about eight months, he said, he began to develop real feelings for her.
Schulman said he finally became suspicious when he discovered that the music Megan claimed to have produced with her brother, which sounded too professional to have been the work of supposed amateurs, was music they’d downloaded and then reposted online.
“People need to be a little bit skeptical about Internet transactions,” Nowinksi says. “The reality is that there have always been predators in society. My first rule of thumb is, ‘If it seems too good to be true, it’s probably too good to be true.’”
Nowinski recommends these safety measures after meeting someone online:
- Always make the initial meetings public and brief.
- Have an exit strategy, such as a scheduled visitor or a friend’s birthday.
- Never give your phone number; instead, ask for theirs.
- Be aware of your vulnerability and keep your eyes and ears open.
- Research the person online, where criminal records and credit ratings are often available and can indicate either a history of legal trouble or a financial situation that might indicate they’re after your money.
Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the novel Pretty Much True and the short story collection Carol’s Aquarium.