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

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According to ESPN, the friend, a woman in her mid-20s, said Tuiasosopo told her that Te’o “was not involved at all, he was a victim.”

On Wednesday, Te’o expressed his “incredible embarrassment” and called it a hoax, though he had continued to talk about Kennau as his girlfriend even after he informed the university that he had been a victim of fraud.

Those willing to exploit the vulnerable goodwill of others have always been hanging around the fringes of society, of course, but the social media age has given the practice a different and disturbing spin: It’s as if the very anonymity of the Internet morphs into a tendency toward faith in other people.

“There is a widespread sense, perhaps untrue, that people can be most ‘real’ when they are most hidden – that all of us are Cyranos who can only speak our true minds when our faces and names are invisible. It’s a lovely notion … [but] it makes us oblivious to flaming red flags,” the Washington Post’s Monica Hesse wrote Thursday.

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.

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.

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