Many Americans were introduced to a new meaning for the word "catfish" Wednesday evening.
The term is being used to describe a hoax that has plagued the Army and civilian authorities for years.
A catfish, in social media terms, is someone who creates an online profile and pretends to be someone he is not, using photos and information taken from someone else
The hoax is the modern equivalent of the "email from a Nigerian prince" or countless similar cons that target naive or unassuming victims.
Wednesday unveiled perhaps the largest-profile victim of such a hoax, former Notre Dame football star Manti Te'O. Te'o was allegedly fooled into believing he dated a woman who, it has since been revealed, did not exist.
The fictional girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, allegedly died last year. But Deadspin.com uncovered details that appear to show she was fictional, and the photographs allegedly taken of her were actually of another woman.
The Army's Criminal Investigative Command has been warning soldiers and others of similar cons since at least 2009.
A news release that year warned that criminals were posing as members of the Army on popular social networking and dating sites "in an attempt to lure unsuspecting persons into revealing personal, banking or financial information."
Late last year, Army investigators again warned the public about the scams.
At the time, CID said it receives hundreds of reports from people worldwide about people pretending to be U.S. soldiers serving in Afghanistan or elsewhere.
The victims, officials said, are most often unsuspecting women, 30 to 55 years old, who believe they are romantically involved with a soldier.
"We cannot stress enough that people need to stop sending money to persons they meet on the Internet and claim to be in the U.S. military," CID spokesman Chris Grey said in a release. "It is heartbreaking to hear these stories over and over again of people who have sent thousands of dollars to someone they have never met and sometimes have never even spoken to on the phone."
While the Army has not used the term "catfish," the Te'O controversy has dominated sports headlines and thrust a new definition of the term for many people.
The term originates from the 2010 documentary "Catfish," in which a young man built a romantic relationship with a woman he met on Facebook only to find out she was not who she said she was.
The success of the documentary spawned a popular MTV reality show that arranges meetings between people in online relationships to meet their "catfish."
All of the relationships on the show are not dubious; some are real and loving, although more frequently important details of their lives have been glossed over.
In many cases, the scams don't involve financial fraud.
The military hopes to protect potential victims from being duped into being "cyber-robbed" and also want to protect the reputation of U.S. troops.
"We have even seen instances where the soldier was killed in action and the crooks have used that hero's identity to perpetrate their twisted scam," CID Special Agent Matthew Ivanjack said in a news release. Ivanjack has fielded hundreds of calls and emails from victims, according to CID.
On Fort Bragg, officials said they routinely educate soldiers on computer security.
In addition to annual training, commanders are able to host refresher sessions using the Army's Social Media Handbook and other resources, said Fort Bragg spokesman Ben Abel.
"The Internet, as we all know, is used by criminals and predators with destructive motives," Abel said. "That said, we in the Army wholeheartedly embrace the ability to communicate quickly and directly with our community members though web-based technologies and recognize the incredible capacity for service members and their families to stay connected day-to-day and during deployments."
The Te'O case
Montana Miller, associate professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University, said the Te'O controversy and the TV show "Catfish" reveal a "sort of widespread addiction that many people are being sucked into creating these virtual identities almost in an addictive and obsessive fashion."
"This particular story is very confusing because the facts are very strange and unclear," Miller said. "There's the whole element of the cover-up by the university. Why did they cover this up? Were they embarrassed about it? It doesn't seem to me that he did anything wrong. . We've got all these other elements involved because of his level of exposure and fame."
Miller said the Te'O controversy has thrust the issue into the public eye, and she said she worries about others who might try similar stunts.
"Somebody who wants to actually pull off that kind of deception is very harmful to the people that it's inflicted on," she said. "There's something very wrong with someone like that. It's a very unethical thing to do.
"For someone to actually see a case like this and go, 'Oh, maybe I'll trick somebody into..' I hope, I truly hope that that would be a rare occurrence. That would just be an evil thing to do."
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