While the Internet has brought enormous benefits to society, it should be used with caution. The embarrassing hoax perpetrated on Notre Dame footballer Manti Te’o spotlighted the latest Internet scam of catfishing, one of the numerous hazards facing cybersurfers.
Catfishing refers to engaging people in online romantic relationships through fake Internet profiles. The practice is not illegal, but as the linebacker’s experience demonstrates, it can be emotionally devastating.
Te’o thought he was having a love affair with a woman he met on the Internet. He spoke publicly about their relationship in a big way. But she didn’t exist. A closeted gay man struggling with his sexual orientation was pretending to be her.
Catfishing is typical of the opportunities the Web presents for anti-social behavior. Trusting and naïve Internet users have been robbed, scammed of their life savings and murdered through contacts made online.
According to a 2011 survey conducted by Symantec in 24 countries, there are 50,000 casualties per hour of online crimes – that’s 1 million victims daily. Men are more commonly tricked than women, largely because they’re more prone to online activities that make them vulnerable, such as visiting porn, gambling and hook-up sites.
LGBT people are particularly at risk, since they are heavier Internet users. A unique risk they face is public exposure of their sexual orientation in a world that’s still overwhelmingly homophobic. In the developing world, people outed online have been killed. In many states, LGBT people can be fired or evicted.
The Internet has facilitated what’s been called an epidemic of sex and porn addiction among gay men. Internet sex and porn addicts lose their ability to have real relationships and sometimes lose their jobs over their addiction. Men who frequent hook-up sites such as Manhunt and the phone app Grindr have been traced to numerous local outbreaks of HIV and STD infections.
Older gay men are particularly vulnerable to scammers. People claiming to be young men looking for older lovers gain access to their bank accounts and credit cards with the promise of buying an airline ticket to visit them.
Online bullying and harassment are also major hazards on the Web, leading to an untold number of youth suicides. Cowards use the Internet to spread malicious lies and damage reputations. They torment business owners they dislike by posting negative reviews of their enterprises.
In an incident that gained notoriety in Door County some years ago, a gay couple was assaulted during a bar fight that they said was a hate-motivated attack. But a man who felt rejected by the couple posted Internet comments on news stories about the incident claiming that he witnessed the attack and insisting it was not hate-motivated. A police investigation tracked down the “witness,” discovered that he was not even present at the incident and forced him to issue a public apology.
Te’o’s case is a reminder that the Internet is a dangerous place. Be careful of what you reveal online and wary of what you read, unless it’s connected to a reputable news source. Most blogs and “informational” sources on the Web make Fox News look like The New York Times. Often they’re created by special interests pushing propaganda devoid of truth.
Sadly, the cybersphere is an environment where criminals, sociopaths, cowards and people with an agenda can wreak havoc under the cover of anonymity or a euphemistic name.