Imagine that you meet someone online. You get a Facebook message from someone who’s a friend of a friend. Maybe you glance through their profile: went to the same high school your cousin went to, has a nice job, and good looking to boot! You chat with them, get to know them. Every day you look forward to “talking” to them; telling them about your day, hearing about theirs. Your heart flutters when you see them sign online. You share private information and intimate details; maybe you decide to be in an exclusive relationship with them. Sure, you’ve never met them… but you feel like you know them better than anyone you’ve ever met before, and well… they do live across the country. Maybe you even have plans to meet each other in person!
What happens when you find out this person isn’t real? Perhaps their profile is a fake, designed to trick you into giving them money or gifts, hurt you emotionally, or lure you into meeting them in person. This sort of online relationship deception is also known as catfishing (inspired by the 2010 film Catfish) or catphishing.
To some an online relationship may seem silly and naïve, but it’s becoming increasingly more common the more interconnected “real life” becomes with the internet. However, some people forget that (just like in real life) there are “bad people” on the internet; and on the internet, it’s easier to be bad.
Recent news (such as this article from CNN) has detailed this situation with football player Manti Te’o, linebacker for University of Notre Dame. There’s been a media storm over the issue. Was Manti using his “dead girlfriend” to garner sympathy and improve his chances of winning the Heisman trophy? Or is he really just stupid enough to fall for, what seems to most, an obvious hoax? Recent interviews with the perpetrators of the hoax shed some light on the situation and the internet continues to make light of the fiasco, as evidenced by the photo below.
While the investigation into whether Manti was duped or took part in the hoax himself continues, there are plenty of other examples of people being deceived about the identities of others online. Most cases involving fake profiles may be harmless, but there are many examples proving how dangerous and harmful these incidents can be- including a couple of high profile cases of cyber bullying: Amanda Todd and Megan Meier.
Parry Aftab, the executive director of WiredSafety.org states in this USA Today interview, “Sixty percent to 70% of cyber bullying or cyber harassment cases occur anonymously or with fake impersonated accounts.” The article goes on to say, “A number of the bullying cases that ended in suicide involved impersonations in which someone pretended to like the victim, [Aftab] adds.” This sort of cyber bullying isn’t relegated to children or just a case of “kids being kids.” Politicians, teachers, and celebrities have also been targets of and affected by fake online profiles. Even government entities have been impersonated online.
It’s easy to assuage your own doubts about others online. The anonymity of the internet can make you feel safe. The flip-side to this is that it makes some feel safe in their efforts to harm others- emotionally, socially, financially, and even physically.
You don’t have to disconnect from the internet, however. There are several ways to stay safe on the web. Here are some tips from NCDOJ.gov :
- Never send or wire money to a stranger you meet online. Once the money has been wired, it is highly unlikely you will ever get it back.
- Never give out your personal information to someone you meet online, no matter what the circumstance or why they say they need it.
- Beware if someone you meet online begins asking you for money, even a small amount.
- Be suspicious of anyone who posts pictures purporting to look like a model out of a magazine, especially if you’re on a site where most members are seniors.
- Stick to well known dating and social networking websites where you have some protections and can report users who violate terms and conditions. Be cautious when someone you don’t know asks you to leave the site to chat or talk.
- And remember: people aren’t always who they say they are online.
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