Online Identity

March 14th, 2013

A Moving Story

It was a moving human-interest story: A college football star overcomes the adversities and grief from the deaths of his grandmother and his girlfriend, becomes a Heisman Trophy finalist, and leads his team to an undefeated regular season and the national championship game. Only, the story wasn’t all true.

On September 12, Manti Te’o, a senior linebacker at Notre Dame, learned that his grandmother, Annette Santiago, died. He said that just hours later he found out that his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, died of leukemia.

That Saturday, September 15, Te’o led his team to a 20–3 win over Michigan State, a stunning upset victory. After the game, he said, “My family and my girlfriend’s family have received so much love and support from the Notre Dame family. Michigan State fans showed some love. And it goes to show that people understand that football is just a game, and it’s a game that we play, and we have fun doing it. But at the end of the day, what matters is the people who are around you, and family. I appreciate all the love and support that everybody’s given my family and my girlfriend’s family.”

The human-interest story of the grieving football star continued. Te’o decided to miss Kekua’s funeral the following Saturday, September 22, and instead traveled with the team to the University of Michigan. He said that Kekua had insisted that he not miss a game. That night, Te’o intercepted two passes as Notre Dame beat Michigan, moving to 4–0, the best start for Notre Dame in more than a decade. After the game, Te’o said of his girlfriend, “All she wanted was some white roses. So I sent her roses and sent her two picks along with that.” Notre Dame’s head coach gave the game ball to Te’o in her honor.


On December 6, Te’o got a phone call from a person claiming to be Lennay Kekua. That’s when he discovered that not only had she not died in September, but she never even existed. A person, or more than one person, had invented Lennay Kekua.

Two days later at the Heisman Trophy ceremony, Chris Fowler of ESPN asked Te’o what moment of his very public grief he would most remember. The linebacker said, “I think I’ll never forget the time when I found out that, you know, my girlfriend passed away and the first person to run to my aid was my defensive coordinator, Coach [Bob] Diaco, and you know he said something very profound to me. . . . He said ‘this is where your faith is tested.’ ”

Te’o talked about his girlfriend to the media at least two more times after he discovered the deception. On December 26, Te’o told his coaches that he was the victim of a hoax. Yet the hype continued.

The morning of the championship game between Notre Dame and Alabama in January, CBS This Morning ran a short feature of the inspiring story of Te’o playing through his grief. The news program included a quote from Kekua: “Babe, if anything happens to me, you promise that you’ll stay there and you’ll play and you’ll honor me through the way you play.” publicly revealed the fake girlfriend hoax in January, after the championship game. University officials subsequently confirmed the report. In a statement released after the hoax came to light, Te’o said, “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. We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her. To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating.”

Questions about the football star’s involvement in the deception swirled. Did he help create the nonexistent girlfriend? Did he keep the story going to promote his popularity, improve his chances with Heisman voters, or boost his stock in the upcoming NFL draft?

Katie Couric asked him whether he was in on the scheme. Te’o replied, “Katie, put yourself in my situation. I, my whole world told me that she died on Sept. 12. Everybody knew that. This girl, who I committed myself to, died on Sept. 12.” Months later, he found out about the trick. “Then I’m going to be put on national TV two days later. And to ask me about the same question [about his girlfriend]. You know, what would you do?”

Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, 22, has admitted to duping Te’o. In an interview with Phil McGraw of the Dr. Phil Show, Tuiasosopo said he created the online persona of Lennay Kekua and that Te’o was not involved with the hoax. He said over time he developed feelings for Te’o that he could not control. He also believes as Kekua he actually helped the football player become a better person. “I pretty much had this escape of Lennay and this was where my heart had pretty much invested, not just time, but all of my energy went into this,” Tuiasosopo said. Tuiasosopo insisted to McGraw that while he understands that the hoax was cruel, he did not mean it as a joke. He also said that he has not financially profited from it.


How could Te’o, or anyone, be so foolish as to fall for a made-up person? Actually, he’s not alone in being duped by such a hoax. The 2010 movie Catfish documented a 24-year-old man’s romance with a 19-year-old woman he met online. It turns out the young woman was the creation of a bored housewife. The movie spawned the term catfishing, the act of taking a false identity online and using it to trick others to believe the fictional persona is real, usually for the purpose of developing a relationship.

“It’s surprisingly common for the average person to get swept up in online scams, especially romantic ones,” says Scott Haltzman, a psychologist and author of The Secrets of Surviving Infidelity. “The two people communicating have the opportunity to present polished versions of themselves in emails and text messages, crafting idealized personas that may not be real. And since both parties have no context for each other’s behavior otherwise, they’re likely to give each other the benefit of the doubt.”

That was true for Joan Romano. Romano gave $25,000 to “Austin Miller,” a US soldier based in Afghanistan who she met on the dating site, who turned out to be a scammer based in Ghana. That was also true for Debbie Best, who fell in love with John Scofield after meeting him on the Christian dating site in 2012. She wound up giving him $1,000 and her credit card information before she discovered he was a scammer. And that was true for Carole Markin, who was assaulted by someone she initially met on

Catching a Catfisher

Jesus warned his disciples that they were being sent out like sheep among wolves. So he urged them to be as wise as snakes, yet as innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16). In other words, we are to be aware of the techniques of those who want to deceive us, without becoming deceitful ourselves.

John Wesley’s General Rules, particularly the first two rules, do no harm and do good, provide a helpful guide for using social media. The General Rules remind us that in all of life, including our interactions online, Christians are to be guided by loving God and loving our neighbor.

Some particular ways to be wise as snakes when online include: Research anyone with whom you develop a relationship online. Check your mutual friends on social media sites, and ask them how they know that person. Consider a more thorough background check, especially before you give that person money or meet them. Don’t rely on a telephone call to verify a person’s identity; Skype can help you pick up on nonverbal cues and put a name with a face and voice. If you do meet the person, make arrangements to do so in a public location such as a coffee shop or restaurant. Meet during daylight hours. “Don’t spend too much time together,” suggests Haltzman. “You may be tempted to make up for lost time but resist so you don’t fall into a false sense of intimacy.” If you become a victim in a catfishing scam, contact the authorities, par- ticularly the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

This article is part of FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs. The complete study guide accompanying this article can be purchased here.

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