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Was Manti Te'o hooked by a catfish? Fake online persona at center of hoax

Published: Sunday, Aug. 30 2015 12:18 a.m. MDT

In this Nov. 10, 2012, file photo, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o waits for the snap during the second half of their NCAA college football game against Boston College in Boston. (Associated Press) In this Nov. 10, 2012, file photo, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o waits for the snap during the second half of their NCAA college football game against Boston College in Boston. (Associated Press)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Wednesday's Deadspin article reporting that Notre Dame player Manti Te'o's girlfriend — who reportedly died of leukemia in September — never actually existed raised myriad questions, but also brought the practice of being a "catfish" into the spotlight.

A "catfish" will go online and use fake profiles and photographs to fool others into believing they are someone completely different, building relationships and in some cases — like the Te'o situation — entire stories and tragic endings.

After the Deadspin article reported that there was no record of Lennay Kekua's existence, Notre Dame released a statement saying Te'o was the victim of what appeared to be a hoax. Te'o followed up with a statement of his own, saying that he was the victim "of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies."

In this Sept. 15, 2012 photo, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o points to the sky as he leaves the field after a 20-3 win against Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich. (Associated Press) In this Sept. 15, 2012 photo, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o points to the sky as he leaves the field after a 20-3 win against Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich. (Associated Press)

According to Deadspin, the pictures identified as Kekua in tributes and TV reports were actually photos of a 22-year-old woman who had never met Te'o.

"It is a scam that follows the exact arc of (catfishing)," Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick told the media Wednesday. "It's perpetrated with shocking frequency — for me, shocking as an older guy who's not as versed in the online world. It is just as this one. An initial casual engagement, a developing relationship online, a subsequent trauma — traffic accident, illness — and then, a death."

Nev Schulman, who was the subject of the 2010 documentary "Catfish," spoke to ABC News about his experience falling for a girl named Megan online. He eventually confronted Megan and found her to be a middle-aged mom of two who later said she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Schulman now hosts MTV's "Catfish: The TV Show," which brings together couples who have never met in real life. In the first episode of the show, which aired in November 2012, Schulman introduced nursing student Sunny to her online boyfriend, "Jamison," who actually turned out to be a girl named Chelsea.

After the Te'o story broke, Schulman tweeted, "I am working on finding out more about this @MTeo_5 #Catfish story. I have been in contact with the woman involved and will get the truth."

He later followed up, saying, " Update: @jayRahz & @ceeweezy51 knew all along — However this #Manti story ends, it doesn't change that we are all the victims of a #Catfish."

Schulman also tweeted to Te'o, saying, "I know how you feel. It happened 2 me. I want 2 help tell ur story & prevent this from happening to others in the future. Let's talk."

In his interview with ABC, Schulman said reports of people being the victims of catfish are going to continue, and people should learn to read the signs.

"If the person you're talking to has a series of family incidents — illness; oftentimes cancer, which we see a lot; car accidents — yeah, things like this — (it's) something to watch out for," Schulman said. "As long as we're not looking people in the eye, face-to-face, there's always going to be room — a lot of room — for deception."

The debate over whether or not Te'o is the victim of a catfish or knew about the fake girlfriend is ongoing.

Notre Dame's Swarbrick said in a news conference that Te'o was the perfect mark for a hoax.

"He is a guy who is so willing to believe in others and so ready to help, that as this hoax played out in a way that called upon those tendencies of Manti, it roped him more and more into the trap," Swarbrick said. "He was not a person who would have a second thought about offering his assistance and help. ... Nothing about what I have learned has shaken my faith in Manti Te'o one iota."

Deadspin's Timothy Burke, one of the authors of the Te'o piece, told ABC News that the time and the energy required to pull off the hoax — to spend hours on the phone with Te'o, and to send messages and letters before each football game — would have required a lot of work, and raised questions about Te'o's involvement.

"Why would somebody go to such great lengths to hoax him like this?" Burke asked.

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