Maybe the University of Notre Dame's star linebacker Manti Te'o was a hapless victim of a cruel hoax.
Or, maybe, he was in on the prank involving a dead girlfriend who, as it turns out, was not dead, not his girlfriend and never even existed.
Te'o became a media darling during the 2012 college football season after excelling on the field despite the deaths in September of his grandmother and girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, within hours of each other. Kekua reportedly had died of leukemia after being in a car accident.
Whatever happened, experts say, people can be manipulated on social media --if often in much more mundane ways than Te'o's strange tale. And everyone can take precautions to protect themselves.
"We all know the maxim that if it seems to be too good to be true, it probably is. Well, that's because it's true," said Jesse Fox, an assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University who studies the role of social media in romantic relationships.
People often let down their guard when they turn to Internet dating, Facebook and other social-media sites because they want desperately to believe they've found the perfect mate or whatever else they were seeking in that newfound online friend, Fox said. And online, they also can't rely on nonverbal cues, such as shifty eyes or other signs that would indicate that someone is nervous, that would send up red flags in face-to-face conversations, she said.
"Those shouldn't be overlooked. If a person has told one lie, they're more than likely to tell many more."
Te'o's defense is that he was "catfished" --duped by someone who created a fake identity through Facebook. The term comes from a 2010 documentary about these types of hoaxes that has been repackaged by MTV into a TV show.
"To think that I shared ... my happiness about my relationship and details that I thought to be true about her just makes me sick," Te'o said in a statement after a story about the deceit on the Internet news site Deadspin went viral Wednesday. He also called the situation "painful and humiliating."
But many people immediately started questioning his defense, saying that it seems implausible and that the stories that have been told about how he and Kekua met contain too many inconsistencies. For example, Notre Dame officials said the two never met in person. Previous reports quoting Te'o's father said they had met, including after a 2009 game at Stanford.
People can create fake personas fairly easily, said private investigator Dean Boerger of Boerger Investigative Services in Grandview Heights.
"There are ways, easy ways, to cloak yourself and be someone you're not," he said.
People can steal photos from another person's legitimate Facebook page, take on a pseudonym and create a fake phone number on Google Voice, Boerger said.
That's why it's important to verify what people tell you online.
Garry Proper, chief investigator of Confidential Services Inc. in Columbus, said that, five or six times a year, his firm does background checks for clients who have met someone online. And he expects those numbers to rise with the continued popularity of online-dating sites.
He said his firm had one female client who met a man online who claimed to be wealthy but later asked her for tens of thousands of dollars to help him through an unfortunate situation. She "smartly broke that relationship off," Proper said.
Unfortunately, not everyone realizes he or she is being duped.
Thirty people filed complaints with the Ohio attorney general's office last year about "sweetheart scams" that ended up being embarrassing and costing many of them money.
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