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What Is a 'Catfishing' Scam? Ask Manti Te'o

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By Andrew Lu on January 17, 2013 9:49 AM

Today and in the next few days, you may read and hear a lot about "catfishing." But unless you're a teenager or happened to have seen the documentary "Catfish," you may have no idea what catfishing really is.

Here is a hint:

In a story that's shocking the sports world, Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o says that he met a girl online and they started an Internet relationship. The two apparently became a couple, and Te'o says that he was devastated when he learned that the woman had died this past fall. Now, it's been revealed that this girl never existed.

If you believe Te'o's version of the story, he became a victim of "catfishing."

Catfishing is basically an Internet scam or hoax in which someone pretends to be someone else online and nabs an unsuspecting victim.

People may go "catfishing" for a variety of reasons. Some deal with their unresolved high school issues by pretending to be a jock, cheerleader, or some other stereotype online. Others "catfish" for more nefarious purposes, like to lure underage children for sexual purposes. And still others "catfish" simply because they can, with the added effect of causing embarrassment for the unsuspecting victim.

So is "catfishing" illegal? Well, it depends upon the specific facts of the catfishing scam, and also which state it occurred in.

For example, several states like California, Washington, Texas, and New York already make online impersonation a crime, according to AG Beat. So if a teacher pretends to be a student on Facebook, or a fan pretends to be a star athlete on Twitter, then the impersonator could potentially be guilty of a crime.

For online impersonation laws like California's to kick in, however, the perpetrator's intent must be to harm, intimidate, threaten, or defraud. California's law also allows a victim to file a civil lawsuit against the scammer if he suffered any economic harm.

In cases where someone is not actually impersonating a real person, like what allegedly happened to Manti Te'o, "catfishing" may still be illegal when the online fraud is used to perpetuate a crime. For example, if someone "catfishes" to profit off a natural disaster, to seduce young children, or for any other illegal purpose, then that person would obviously be guilty of the underlying crime.

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