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Security lessons from the Manti Te'o Story

Mama's don't let your sons grow up to be Catfish

Like many of you I was shocked yesterday when I heard about the Manti Te'o girlfriend hoax story. Having seen the interviews before the big BCS championship game and heard his heart-wrenching story from his own mouth on TV, I could not accept that this whole story about his girlfriend who died of cancer was a hoax. Then I listened to the news conference from the AD at Notre Dame, as well as 12 hours of the talking heads on TV and radio, and had a chance to go over it in my own head.

As I sit here writing this, I still don't know if Manti Te'o is telling the truth or not. I don't know if he was in on this whole thing as a way to enhance his Heisman Trophy status. If it was a little white lie that he and a friend started that grew bigger than they ever could imagine, eventually ensnaring themselves in a trap they couldn't escape. Or maybe, giving Te'o the benefit of the doubt, he really is the victim here. He was just an innocent, naïve young athlete who was taken in by some online fraudsters. No different than all of those crazy people who really do believe that the bank official in Nigeria has picked them to help dispose of the 12 million dollars left in a bank account of someone who died with no relatives.

Regardless of whether you believe Te'o or not, though, there is a lesson to be learned here. Many people are saying Te'o was either the victim of a "Catfish" scheme. In any event, you should be aware of what they mean by Catfish. Maybe we should call it "Catphish." The term references a controversial documentary released in 2010 about a young man who developed a relationship with a woman he only met online. Their relationship is filmed by his two friends. Eventually, they go to the woman's home and, of course, they find out that on the Internet "no one knows you are a dog."

But, seriously, it is a fascinating study in how we believe what we want to believe and how unscrupulous people can play with our emotions and lives using the Internet. I am embedding the trailer from the film below this paragraph (you may have to reload the page for it to show up). Have a look and then continue reading my story.

Unfortunately, this type of scheming has been going on long before the Catfish movie. I was using online services since way before the Internet was commercial. I remember Compuserve, Genie, AOL and more. How many of you have had conversations with people you met online? How many of you single or even married folks have spoken to others in a flirtatious manner online? I remember a funny cartoon I read years ago. It was an older, heavier guy playing on his computer in the dark. The bubble shows some talk between him and what is supposed to be a woman in a chat room. His wife says to him, "Herb, get out of that chat room, the 'girl' you are talking to is just another old, bald, fat guy like you."

Even before the AOL chat rooms, though, there was another service I belonged to. It was called the Imagination Network. My good friend Billy Nicholson and I were members. It had lots of different "lands" where you could play different games and activities. One was "Casino Land," sort of built in a Leisure Suit Larry sort of way (if you remember that great old computer game). You had to fax proof that you were 18 to get into Casino Land. Once in there you could create your own avatar (it was so ahead of its time), designing your look and persona. You could gamble (not real money) at various games. For most people, though, it was an online meat market. You could chat up other people there and go into private chat rooms. In the chat rooms you could give others flowers, hearts and even kisses, as well as chat. Remember, this is back in like 1994 or 1995. It was very cutting-edge over a 1200 or 2400 baud modem.

Anyway, it was my first exposure to online flirting. I was already married and not really looking to meet anyone. But the idea of talking to people from anywhere in the world in this "adult" atmosphere was alluring. Billy and I would go in pretty often and chat up anyone and everyone. It never occurred to us that the people we were chatting might not have been who they said they were. Yeah, we figured they were lying about their looks and whether they were married or not, but why would a guy say he was a girl? What would anyone gain by playing someone else? Anyway, when I started getting emails (that was still pretty new then) from some of the folks I spoke to in Casino Land, I realized that playing around online could quickly lead to trouble in real life. I stopped online chatting quickly before someone came knocking on my door one day.

But the game remains the same. The Internet is one of the greatest meeting places for romance that has ever been invented. You are not going to stop online flirting or people meeting via the net. Nor do I think we want to. In fact, the online dating industry being a multi-billion dollar industry is proof of that.

The real question is how do you avoid becoming the next Manti Te'o? How do you not wind up as Catfish? For me, the answer is the same as how you avoid any other online scam. You don't leave your common sense at the door to the computer room. You need to remember and you parents out there need to teach your kids, not everything is as it appears or true on the Internet (I am reminded of the commercial with the girl dating a French model, Bonjour). We are all looking for love and friendship and our emotions sometimes can cloud our better judgment. But before you dive in head first, have some common sense please. Having another set of eyes look at what you are doing is not a bad idea. I always tell people: "step away from the keyboard and really think about this." There is nothing wrong with asking for some kind of proof of who you are talking to online. If it smells fishy, it usually is. If it is too good to be true, it probably is.

I don't mean to put a wet towel on all of you who have found love and romance online or who are looking for love and romance online. But if you do believe what Manti Te'o claims, that he is the victim here, let it be a lesson to you. Don't be the next one!

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