I have to admit that I was unaware of the Te’o story until one of my friends posted a comment about the meme surrounding it on Facebook a day ago. I looked it up, shook my head, and like much of the country, wondered what was going on. It isn’t that I am surprised at the concept of someone faking a woman online. This sort of thing has a long history on the web. I have experienced it myself, thought not with anything so serious as a romantic relationship. But I am surprised at the complexity and length of this particular situation.
My Experiences with Fake People Online
First, when I was younger, I did spend some time in chat rooms and online games. This would have been back in college in the 90s. I met a lot of men pretending to be women. I am sorry to say it was normally obvious that these men were pretending to be women, because they would immediately try to bring the conversation around to sex. Most women don’t do that. Actually, I have never met a woman on line who would immediately start asking questions about breast size, and saying dirty things. These were always men. However, I also had a friend in an online game who told everyone she was female. This went on for 2 or 3 years. I was suspicious of her, because she said some odd things that just didn’t seem very…womanly. But never anything offensive, so I didn’t much care. Well, one day she decided she needed to tell everyone the truth. She asked if she could call me on the phone (we had never spoken) and when she did, I found myself speaking to a young man. He offered abject apologies. I told him I didn’t much care. Alas, the man with whom he had cybersex wasn’t too happy, but that is an entirely different post.
I also experienced the case of someone pretending to die. In that case the person was known only slightly to me, by that time I wasn’t spending much time on online games any more, so I heard most of the story second hand. But apparently it was a man pretending to be a woman – who then pretended to commit suicide. The fake suicide was dramatic because she used a channel in the game that everyone could see, informing them she was going to kill herself. People desperately tried to get in touch with her parents and to convince her not to harm herself. Then someone claiming to be her brother came online a few days later to tell everyone she had killed herself. Finally people identified enough information to figure out the truth, that the “brother” was really the person who had been pretending to be a suicidal woman all along. They also figured out his phone number and called his parents. He was a teenager. And he put those who cared about this woman through hell. I am glad I wasn’t online while it happened. I am sure I would have found the idea of begging someone not to kill herself and failing absolutely devastating. It was a cruel thing to do.
Famous Fake People
There are many more cases of people fooling others on the web. One of the most famous involves Kaycee Nicole. Kaycee was supposedly a young woman suffering from leukemia. She was very popular, had many followers who cared greatly for her, sent her gifts and supported her. Then she suddenly died. Only Kaycee did not exist. She was really a woman named Debbie Swenson, who had faked the entire thing for quite some time.
There are enough cases of people pretending to be ill online that it has a name. Munchausen by Internet.
Of course, it would be difficult to forget Megan Meier who committed suicide after being harassed by someone she thought was her online boyfriend. It turned out that the boyfriend didn’t exist, rather it was the mother of a neighborhood girl.
Why and How?
You might wonder why I never knew that my online friend was a boy. Well, frankly, I didn’t care. It isn’t as if I had a romantic relationship with her. It does become more difficult to understand in cases of romantic relationships how these things happen, but when someone wants to create a fake persona, and has willing accomplices, it becomes easier. Back in the 90s, the only thing you could have done to check was a phone call, so there would be no way for anyone to be certain that people were on the up and up. I think we also have a tendency to take people at their word. We don’t understand why another person would pretend to be something she is not, so we don’t think of it. Nor does it occur to us that someone would fake an illness or a relationship.
Why do people do these things? Sometimes, I think they do them for attention. Sometimes they are ill and cannot seem to help themselves. Sometimes they do them for nefarious reasons. Money, perhaps.
The Te’o Situation
Unfortunately, as common as these scenarios are, I have to admit some confusion in the Te’o case. Unlike when I was young, there are plenty of ways to share video communications. But in this case the faker apparently hid himself enough to make it seem as if he was a woman. It just seems Te’o is extremely naive to me. Or perhaps the story is more complex than it seems. Who knows.
*The hoaxer is a confused young man with a lot of issues. He did a terrible thing to Manti Te’o, who I hope will be ok. And I hope the young man gets whatever therapy he needs so he can be more honest about who he is to himself and everyone else.*
Watch out for Fakers
How do you find out if someone is faking online? First, you just need to use some common sense. There are normally signs that you notice in your gut. We have a tendency to ignore these feelings. Don’t.
If someone offers to meet you and then cancels, that is a sign something is wrong.
If someone constantly makes excuses why she cannot video chat, that is a sign.
If there are inconsistencies in the stories, that is a sign too. It is much easier to remember the truth than it is to remember lies.
If you have found someone online who interests you, search the person. Look for everything you can. See if what you find validates the things the person says. And never, ever let go of your heart until you are certain the person is who and what s/he says s/he is.
Stay safe out there.
*Updated 2/1/2013 to reflect changes in the situation.