Imagine staring at a Twitter profile, name completely different from yours, tweets completely different from yours, username completely different from yours. Yet, there is one thing that is the same.Their profile picture is you. Their pictures are of you. But the strangest thing of all? They are saying that all those pictures of you, are pictures of them. This happened to me, and it could happen to you too.
Her name was Gracie. She had 5,000 or something followers. It was such a weird feeling scrolling through this girl’s account. Her feed was flooded with pictures of me. Picture after picture with captions like, “Just got back from the movies!” or “Going to hang out with my friends!” or maybe even, “Look at this new outfit I got!” The thing was, I hadn’t just gotten back from the movies in that picture, and I wasn’t going to hang out with my friends in the other picture, and that outfit in the next picture wasn’t new. She had taken my images and created an alternate life for me, a life that wasn’t real. I didn’t know what was supposed to scare me more: that she took all of my pictures or that people actually believed that was her.
The act of impersonating someone online is commonly known by its slang term catfishing. The term was coined by Nev Schulman who created a documentary about falling for a girl online that turned out to be a 40 year old woman. She was married, and not young and single like she claimed to be. After hearing the woman’s husband, Vince Pierce, relay the following story, Schulman had come up with a title for his documentary. And the name stuck.
“They used to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China.” Pierce said, “They’d keep them in vats in the ship. By the time the codfish reached China, the flesh was mush and tasteless. So this guy came up with the idea that if you put these cods in these big vats, put some catfish in with them and the catfish will keep the cod agile. And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank god for the catfish because we would be droll, boring and dull if we didn't have somebody nipping at our fin.”
But can catfishing someone online lead you to legal trouble? In some states it can. In New York and California impersonating someone online is a misdemeanor that can earn you up to a year in prison and thousands of dollars in fines. On the other hand, in Texas you can be charged up to ten years in prison for this crime according to Victor Luckerson for Time.com.
“When someone both steals your identity and damages your reputation, there ought to be consequences.” says Joe Simitian, former California state senator who drafted the state’s online impersonation law.
You might be thinking I wouldn’t be stupid enough to get into a relationship online. But believe it or not, it can happen to the best of us. Manti Te’o, Notre Dame football player, got into a relationship with a girl, Lennay Kekua, after meeting her on Twitter. Shortly after they met, Te’o found out she was diagnosed with cancer. On September 15th, 2012 Te’o was informed of his grandmother’s death and shortly six hours after, Te’o is told that his girlfriend, Lennay, had also passed away that afternoon.
Although Manti Te’o claimed to have met his girlfriend after a Stanford vs. Notre game, the couple actually never met in person. Nor did he have any proof that Kekua was real. No Skype calls, no visiting each other, no late night phone calls, and no snapchatting. The relationship was completely and solely typed letters into a phone.
“Manti Te'o and Lennay Kekua did not meet at Stanford in 2009.” Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey say for Deadspin.com, “The real beginning of their relationship apparently occurred on Twitter, as an encounter between @MTeo_5 and @lovalovaloveYOU, on Oct. 10, 2011.”
Te’o is humiliated by the whole situation.
“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.
The online universe isn’t always as reliable as it seems. Faces are hidden behind messages, tweets, statuses, and profile pictures. So watch out, because you too could encounter a catfish.