Catfishing:’ The phenomenon of Internet scammers who fabricate online identities and entire social circles to trick people into romantic relationships

Whether it’s out of revenge, loneliness, curiosity or boredom, an emerging class of Internet predators cite dozens of reasons for scamming their way into romantic relationships with unsuspecting victims seeking love online.

By creating fake profiles on social networking sites, these predators trick people into thinking that they are someone else entirely. The fabricated life stories and photographs that they cobble together online often contain the experiences, friends, resumes and job titles that they wish were their own, providing a complete window into how these scammers want the world to see them – and how far they fall from those ideals.

The emergence of such elaborate social schemes online was brought to light in a shocking way in the 2010 documentary ‘Catfish,’ in which 28-year-old Nev Schulman fell in love with a gorgeous young woman’s Facebook profile and her voice over the phone – both of which turned out to belong to a middle-aged wife and mother.

Documentary: Nev Schulman, 28, created a documentary out of his story of being scammed by a woman who misrepresented herself online

Schulman later turned the documentary into a show, where he helps others solve the mysteries of their online relationships. 

The potential victims always come to Schulman with a similar list of questions for their online lovers: ‘Why does he refuse to chat via web cam?’; ‘Why is she never able to meet in person?’; and finally, ‘Why does it just seem too good to be true?’

The documentary and the show has intrigued and shocked the nation, and its title has since been unofficially canonized into the English language.

Most recently, Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick used the term ‘catfish’ to describe a hoax that one of his football players apparently fell for.

‘I would refer all of you, if you’re not already familiar with it, with both the documentary called “Catfish,” the MTV show which is a derivative of that documentary, and the sort of associated things you’ll find online and otherwise about catfish, or catfishing,’ Swarbrick told reporters Wednesday in describing the incident involving his star linebacker, Manti Te’o.

The woman that Nev had fallen in love with turned out to be Angela Wesselman, a middle-aged wife and mother

(MTV defines the term ‘catfish’ as a verb: ‘Cat·fish [kat-fish]: To pretend to be someone you’re not online by posting false information, such as someone else’s pictures, on social media sites, usually with the intention of getting someone to fall in love with you.’)

Swarbrick’s comments were in reaction to reports that a heartbreaking story about the death of Te’o’s girlfriend was all a lie.

The Hawaiian said during the 2012 season that Lennay Kekua, his girlfriend, died of leukemia in September on the same day Te’o’s grandmother died.

The story of how Te’o and his girlfriend met had previously been chronicled in various news outlets and photographs of the girl were plastered all over the internet and in newspapers across the country.

Football fans were stunned and heartbroken, then, when they learned that the girl had died. The news triggered an outpouring of support for Te’o at Notre Dame and in the media.

But Lennay Kekua never actually existed, according to reporting by Dead Spin. In fact, Dead Spin’s reports indicate that ‘she’ was actually a ‘he’ – and also a friend of Te’o’s. 

Amid claims that Te’o was in on the scam to get publicity, Te’o insists he was duped. 

‘This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online,’ Te’o said. ‘We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her. To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating.’

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o claims he was duped by someone on the Internet who misrepresented herself

In ‘Catfish’ creator Nev Schulman’s case, he fell in love with a girl named Megan, a gorgeous blonde from Michigan. 

He spent hours on the phone with Megan and even sent racy texts and messages to her about kissing her and having sex. 

But months into the relationship, he began to grow suspicious about her identity. 

He discovered that a song she had sent him, which she claimed to have written, was in fact a single released by another artist.

When a few other details didn’t add up, he decided to surprise ‘Megan’ with a visit to her home in Michigan. 

The person who met him at the door was Angela Wesselman, a middle-aged overweight mother who admitted to creating the profile for Megan – as well as orchestrating an entire network of friends and family members to make Megan seem more authentic. Angela said she was lonely and enjoyed the personal connection that the scam provided her.

She later said that she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Schulman was shocked and humiliated, but he also described feeling sad for Wesselman. He spent several days with her and her family trying to understand what drove her to concoct the elaborate scheme.

In his MTV show, Schulman continues searching for answers from ‘catfishers’ that he unites with victims of their schemes.

Sunny, a 21-year-old nursing student from Arkansas, has fallen in love online with a man named Jamison King. She waits outside his home with Nev Schulman before meeting him for the first time

In the first episode, Sunny, a 21-year-old nursing student from Arkansas, has fallen in love online with a man named Jamison King. She has talked to him for months on Facebook and on the phone and she considers him to be her boyfriend. 

The cameras are rolling as she shows up to Jamison’s house in Alabama teeming with excitement about finally meeting the man of her dreams. But ‘Jamison’ turns out to be Chelsea, a young woman seeking female companionship. 

Sunny is first crestfallen and then angry. She threatens to physically hurt Chelsea – a scene that is played out repeatedly in the show between scammers and their victims.

In another ‘Catfish’ episode, a young woman has created a fake online boyfriend for another woman whom she saw as competition for her own love interest.

It turns out that Sunny’s online love interest is actually Chelsea (pictured left). Nev Schulman stands between the girls

The scammer said she created the profile out of spite and as she explained herself, the two women almost got into a fist fight before Schulman intervened.

A third episode reveals a man who didn’t fabricate many facts about his life, but only misrepresented his appearance. He is severely overweight and said he didn’t think his victim would give him a chance at a romantic relationship if he revealed his true appearance.

The circumstances that drive various ‘catfishers’ to fabricate entire lives and social circles differ greatly, but what ties them together in each episode is the satisfaction they claim to get out of having total control over the way that others perceive them.

The circumstances that drive various ‘catfishers’ to deceive people differ greatly, but what ties them together is the satisfaction they get out of having total control over the way that they are perceived

It is a joy that typically springs from their inability to achieve the depth of human connection in reality that they can achieve online, according to their personal accounts.

When Chelsea was asked whether she would have continued posing as ‘Jamison’ had Schulman not intervened, she admitted she would.

‘To be totally honest with you, I think I would have to say yes,’ Chelsea said. ‘It’s different – going from basically talking to whoever you want to talk to, to whoever really just wants to talk to you.’

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