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Manti Te'o girlfriend hoax: What deceit lurks in Internet's depths

Being pulled into a fake Internet romance is more common than you’d think. The Manti Te'o dead girlfriend hoax, where ‘the love of his life’ who died of cancer was a fake, shows how 'catfish' prey on trust.

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According to the National Consumers League, Internet “catfish” hoaxes, which the organization calls “friendship & sweetheart swindles,” ranked seventh in frequency among all fraud last year.

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The phenomenon is widespread and intriguing enough that it’s spawned a TV show called “Catfish: The TV Show,” which in itself is a spinoff of a film documentary where a normal guy looking for love sought out an Internet girlfriend only to find she was a middle-aged mom. On one episode of “Catfish: The TV Show,” a woman finds out her online boyfriend is really another woman.

The co-hosts of the show, Nev Schulman and and Max Joseph, say they’ve received thousands of e-mails, letters and pleas from around the world since the release of the movie “Catfish” in 2010 in which Mr. Schulman was targeted, suggesting that such hoaxes are pervasive, though certainly not always as complex and elaborate as the Manti Te’o dead girlfriend hoax.

According to Notre Dame’s athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, Te’o was in contact with “Kekua’s” family, including a twin brother and her parents, whom he apparently called regularly.

And there are still open questions about Te’o’s role in the hoax. While Notre Dame’s official timeline of what happened notes that Te’o figured out his girlfriend was fake on Dec. 6, he talked about her in a Dec. 8 interview with a TV station, and again in a Dec. 11 newspaper interview.

"There are a remarkable number of characters involved. We don't know how many people they represent," Mr. Swarbrick said at a news conference this week. "There are male and female characters, brothers, cousins, a mother, and we don't know if it's two people playing multiple characters or multiple people."

"It goes to the sophistication of this, that there are all these sort of independent pieces that reinforce elements of the story all the way through," he added. "There were lengthy, long telephone conversations. There was sleeping with the phone on connected to each other. The issue of who it is, who's playing what role, what's real, and what's not here is a more complex question than I can get into."

As to Te’o’s statements that he had met the girlfriend, Swarbrick said Te’o “was referring to an online meeting. He responded to an online inquiry. That was the first time he met her. And as part of the hoax, several meetings were set up where Lennay never showed, including some in Hawaii.”

Mr. Joseph of “Catfish: The TV Show” suggested in a USA Today interview that Te’o, a talented young football player thrust into the big media spotlight, may have been drawn to an online-only relationship which he then “compartmentalized” from his life. “You’re talking to someone in privacy,” Joseph said. “They become this kind of isolated person for you to trust – it becomes easy to talk to them and they’re always there.”

As for the “catfish,” he or she may have been drawn by the lure of fame and “sense of control and power,” suggests Lucy Papillon, a clinical psychologist, in an interview with MTV.com.

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