Advice for avoiding a "catfish" relationship
Feb 17, 2013 (St. Joseph News-Press - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Kim Bartulica's life shows how helpful a tool the Internet can be in bringing couples together.
The St. Joseph woman met her husband, Nick, through a Catholic website for singles in October 2008. They married a little more than a year later and now have two sons -- making theirs one of many success stories in the ranks of Internet-born relationships.
But not everyone is so fortunate. This fact was recently highlighted by the plight of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, who made headlines for something other than football when it was revealed last month that his supposed girlfriend -- who died of leukemia on the same day he lost his grandmother last September, according to the account Mr. Te'o gave media outlets -- had never existed at all. Other details that have surfaced revealed he likely was the victim of a hoax.
"So often, we meet people through Facebook or dating sites we wouldn't meet on the streets, and we run the risk of people taking advantage of us," says Buchanan County sheriff's deputy Thom Cates, who has experience with the Western Missouri Cyber Crimes Task Force.
Mr. Te'o is far from the only one to experience this. The phenomenon has become common enough, in fact, to have had a term coined for it: catfishing. As defined by Urban Dictionary, this is the act of Internet predators fabricating online identities and even entire social circles to trick people into emotional or romantic relationships over a long period of time, possibly motivated by revenge, loneliness, curiosity or boredom.
The term was inspired by the 2010 documentary "Catfish," which documented its star, Nev Schulman, as he learned the truth about a woman who had portrayed herself as someone else online. Now, he has a TV show by the same name in which he helps others discover the truth about the potential "catfish" in their lives. These productions as well as media coverage of high-profile hoax stories such as the one involving Mr. Te'o have brought the issue to light, and with this recognition has come insight into how to avoid falling victim to this kind of relationship.
Be cautious before you start
Not all means for meeting someone online are equal in terms of safety, and while deception can happen anywhere, you can lower your risk by choosing a website that's less likely to attract predators.
A desire to take this approach is one reason Mrs. Bartulica opted to use Ave Maria Singles, which bills itself as "online dating for marriage-minded Catholics" and requires not only a financial investment but also a willingness to fill out a lengthy questionnaire.
"I do think if you're going to meet someone online, you should use a reputable site," she says. "Some do have built-in checks for you."
Of course, sometimes people fall into relationships through social media even when they don't set out with that intention. In these cases -- assuming the person on the other side of the computer screen is a total stranger with no ties to your real life -- it's even more important to exercise caution before investing much time or emotion.
"We fall for them because we want to make contact with other people," Mr. Cates says, "but it's very important to have proof of life first."
Make meeting a priority
The best way to establish this "proof of life" is to meet people face-to-face (with appropriate safety measures in place) and see for yourself that they are who they say they are -- at least in as much as they haven't used fake photos online. An in-person meeting also makes it easier to gauge the truth of other details they've shared about themselves.
Before she met her husband, Mrs. Bartulica corresponded with several other men and always made a point to have an in-person meeting at a public place within a couple of months.
"I always held off judgement until actually meeting," she says. "It's hard to get a good feel for a person through a computer."
She adds that at one of these meetings, the man brought along a friend to vouch for him that he was who he'd presented himself to be. Although this isn't something she'd asked for, she thought it was a nice gesture.
Another option, when distance makes it difficult to meet in person, is to use a webcam or other device that allows you to see who you're speaking to.
Watch for red flags
If people seem reluctant to meet in person or even to video chat, this may be an indication that they're being deceptive about something. And if that's the case, this reluctance likely isn't the only red flag they're waving.
Some signs of deception Mr. Cates says to be wary of include an unwillingness to provide a photo; back stories that cannot be independently verified; requests for money; and Facebook profiles with unusually few or unusually many connections -- both of which indicate they may have been created as a vehicle for a false persona.
Mr. Schulman elaborates on these red flags in a set of "catfish" warning signs provided on Dr. Phil McGraw's website, www.drphil.com. There, he notes that a Facebook profile with fewer than 100 friends is a red flag, as are Facebook photos in which only the profile owner is tagged. He also advises being skeptical of people who claim to be models -- especially if they claim to have another impressive career on top of this. And if someone not only shows reluctance to meet or video chat but also delivers news of a traumatic accident or injury that delays plans to meet, be aware that this might be a lie intended to cover others they've told.
If a lot of this seems like common sense, that's likely because it is. But when emotions are involved, it can be easy to overlook the obvious, which is why it's so important to determine basic truths about a person early on -- or, if these truths are unreasonably hard to determine, to walk away.
"If it feels like this person might be trying to take advantage, cut off contact," Mr. Cates advises.
Erin Wisdom can be reached
Follow her on Twitter: @SJNPWisdom.
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