Online Safety Lessons From the Manti Te'o Hoax

What can we learn from the highly publicized hoax involving Notre Dame's star linebacker Manti Te'o whose deceased girlfriend Lennay Kekua was discovered to have never existed this week?

If the 2010 documentary Catfish taught us anything, it's not that you can't trust the pretty painter with an angelic singing voice who sends you care packages and sings you love songs (although that's true, too): It's that the film is a reflection of a very scary real-life trend.  In 2011, Joan Romano, a divorced single mom from New York gave $25,000 over a six-month period to an Afghanistan-based soldier named "Austin Miller," a man she had met and developed feelings for through Match.com, who turned out to be a random scammer from Ghana. That same year, Harvard College alumni and Hollywood television producer Carole Markin was assaulted by a man she met (and apparently thought she trusted) on Match.com. And Debbie Best, a 50-year-old residential habilitation trainer and employment specialist from Butte, Montana told The Huffington Post that she fell in love with long-distance boyfriend, a man named John Scofield through the Christian dating site website Mingle2.com in 2012 and ended up funneling him $1,000 and her credit credit information.

Also see: Sign your parents up for love with new dating site

Should these people bear at least some of the responsibility for opening their hearts and wallets to men who are in essence, complete strangers? Some might think so, but according to psychologist Scott Haltzman, M.D., author of Surviving Secrets of Infidelity (June 2013), falling victim to such scams is easier than you may think.

"It's surprisingly common for the average person to get swept up in online scams, especially romantic ones," says Haltzman. "The two people communicating have the opportunity to present polished versions of themselves in emails and text messages, crafting idealized personas that may not be real. And since both parties have no context for each other's behavior otherwise, they're likely to give each other the benefit of the doubt."   

After all, these relationships thrive on hope—in general, people have an enormous desire to feel connected to someone who truly understands them. And your friend who is only exposed to glimpses of you online is more likely to accept you without judgment which can be rewarding, says Haltzman.

There's a physiological component at play, too: Reading and re-reading emails and text messages from someone you're crushing on can cause the brain to pump out high levels of the feel-good chemical dopamine which in turn, makes you crave that person even more.  

Also see: 88-year-old woman weds for the first time

And while there's nothing intrinsically wrong with carrying on a flirty relationship online, take these precautions before you meet the person: 

Investigate dating sites: There's a temptation to trust popular online dating sites with splashy ad campaigns but according to ABC News, vet the company by yourself—does the site screen-vet candidates? Allow explicit content? Provide an emergency number?

Rely on yourself: "It sounds obvious, but just how you would Google a prospective employer, thoroughly research who you're engaging with online," says Haltzman. "Look up mutual friends you share on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. And turn on your Facebook privacy settings so no one can gather information about you." If you want to go a step further, companies such as Criminal Searches offer background checks for a fee and Search Systems allows you to view public records like marriage records and birth certificate for free.

Use Skype: If you're engaged in a long-distance relationship, make a point to Skype with the person; that way you can at least gauge non-verbal cues like facial expressions.

"If you do decide to meet in person, choose a public place like a coffee shop during the day and don't spend too much time together," says Haltzman. "You may be tempted to make up for lost time but resist so you don't fall into a false sense of intimacy." 

And finally, if you are a victim of a scam, file a complaint with the FBI 's Internet Crime Complaint Center.

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