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'Catfishing' reels in unsuspecting folks with fake online personas

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In this Sept. 15, 2012 photo, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o points to the sky as he leaves the field after a 20-3 win against Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich. In a shocking announcement, Notre Dame said Te'o was duped into an online relationship with a woman whose 'death' from leukemia was faked by perpetrators of an elaborate hoax.

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Friday, Jan. 18, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

“Catfishing” could stake claim as an early favorite for word of the year, but its newfound publicity could bring bad news for Internet hoaxsters trying to keep their craft on the down low.

The term refers to the act of having one or more false social media identities on Facebook, Twitter or online dating websites, typically with a goal of fooling a romantic interest.

Its origin traces to the 2010 documentary “Catfish,” in which a Michigan woman lies about almost every detail of her life as she forms an online relationship with a man in New York.

If you're not familiar with it, don't worry. Millions of Americans deluged Google with searches for the term a day after news broke that the girlfriend of Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o never existed, despite moving stories he and his family told Sports Illustrated and other outlets about her struggle to beat leukemia and eventual death. Te'o said he was the victim of a ruse.

Google Trends showed a tenfold increase in queries for “catfished” with more than 1 million results.

Douglas Strahler, a communications instructor at Slippery Rock University, said catfishing is a way to live vicariously through another person, perhaps someone famous. Strahler wrote about the topic in “Regulating Social Media,” a book about online transparency and behavior.

“People want to feel like they can live these second lives,” Strahler said.

He noted a website called “Second Life” encourages users to create an identity and online avatar to interact with others who created detailed, false personas.

“It makes people feel less guilty because they don't see the effect of what they say or do,” Cait Lamberton, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Pittsburgh, said about online interactions.

“Most of us would never say the kind of cruel things that are sometimes posted on Facebook or tweeted in front of someone because you'd have to live with the consequences,” Lamberton said.

Online consumer behavior research shows that Internet shoppers tend to assume other shoppers who review products online have similar wants, needs and behaviors, Lamberton said.

The assumption extends to catfishing.

“We just assume that unless someone tells us different, they're a lot like us,” she said. “Which means that if I think, ‘I would never lie to someone; I would never deceive them like this, so they wouldn't either.' The truth is, you have absolutely no reason to believe that.”

Some use catfishing for good.

Police catch sex predators on the Internet by posing in online chat rooms as young boys or girls to lure criminals into arranging real-life meetings.

It can be used for evil purposes.

A Brentwood man posed online as his stepdaughter in a scheme to trick 15-year-old girls into sending him sexually explicit cell phone photos.

Once he obtained a girl's photo, Russell Freed, 44, a former Pennsylvania Turnpike worker, threatened to distribute it to the victim's family and friends unless she sent more photos, a crime that became known as “sextortion.”

A federal judge in October sentenced Freed to 20 years in prison.

Catalina Toma, a University of Wisconsin-Madison communications professor, has studied catfishing on online dating websites.

She was part of a study published in 2007 that scrutinized the age, height and weight that 80 users posted online.

Researchers weighed and measured users in a laboratory and checked their ages on driver's licenses. Eighty-one percent of participants lied — at least a little.

Social media might make it easy to lie initially, but many online connections, or “friends,” can bring scrutiny, Toma said. It can provide a powerful tool to unravel lies, as in the case of Te'o. Messages between his Twitter account and that of his fictional girlfriend revealed months of inconsistencies.

“The really interesting finding was that deception was frequent,” Toma said of her research. “People don't lie just because it's easy. They do it to fulfill their goals and, in online dating, the majority want to establish a face-to-face relationship.”

Jeremy Boren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7935 or

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