A while back, my friend and I had the bright idea to make up a fictional person and put her on a social network. For her, it was a chance to check out the site without risking her actual personal details. For me, a budding wordsmith, it was a creative writing exercise. So we set up a profile and Photoshopped ourselves together to form a brand new human being. We even looped in a few pals to give our newly concocted person some real-life contacts. Within half an hour, “Chippa” — a fun-loving gal with a wicked sense of humor — was born.

We didn’t know then that a term would evolve for this: catfishing. It refers to fabricating phony social media personas to con people into romantic online relationships. The scenario got some play this week, thanks to the revelation that the deceased girlfriend of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o was a work of fiction. After the news broke, the humiliation — and suspicion that he devised the whole thing as a publicity stunt — was intense. But Te’o maintains he was the victim of a catfish hoax. He never actually connected with her in person, only via phone or online through tools like Twitter.

“If we shake the tree, we would find hundreds of thousands of people falling out of the tree who are experiencing something like this,” research psychologist Robert Epstein, of the California-based American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, told NPR recently. (Interestingly, even Epstein himself admits to being duped. In his case, he was captivated by a bot pretending to be a Russian woman named Ivana.)

It’s not hard to fool people online. If nothing else, the Chippa experiment taught us that. We imbued our gal with the most ridiculous personal details we could think of: She was a motorcycle-riding Eurasian former teen beauty pageant queen and blue ribbon–winning equestrian who rode a cheerleading scholarship to an engineering degree. She was adept at target shooting, but had the soul of an artist. She aspired to be a singer in a hair band. Whatever popped into our heads got poured into her profile. And as her background got crazier and more implausible, the interest in her mounted.

People bought into Chippa hook, line and sinker. After only a couple of days, the inquiries started piling up. Her inbox was full of messages from all types — from painters and designers, to business executives and IT guys. That’s when my friend and I suddenly realized we were playing with fire. In the hands of unscrupulous types, this profile could’ve been a powerful instrument for heartbreak or even worse. That wasn’t what we intended, so we decided to shut down her account and put Chippa to rest.

Today, there are many ways to lure people in places like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, WoW and others. And the more user-friendly the tools get, the more people use them, which only attracts more predators. Romantic relationships aren’t the only cons either. Take Craigslist, for example, and its rising popularity as a hunting ground for crooks.

Last summer, the local news in San Francisco warned the public about rising incidences of Craigslist robberies. Just this week, 23-year-old Dawan Jamal Thompson was arrested in Myrtle Beach, Florida for holding up a man he connected with on the site. The victim had responded to Thompson’s ad for a Galaxy Note II and brought the $350 asking price with him to their designated meeting place, an empty parking lot. That’s where Thompson whipped out a gun and pointed it at the buyer’s head. It would be easy for me to write this off as a stunning lack of judgment by a hapless, overly trusting person — except for the fact that I’ve put myself at risk buying or selling gadgets too. 

I sold my original iPad using an ad on Craigslist, and when I left the house to make the exchange, I felt queasy. It dawned on me that I was about to meet someone I didn’t know and conduct a cash transaction involving a pricey device. At the last minute, I grabbed my husband and he came with me, but what would we have done if the guy had pulled out a gun? After all, the normally bustling street where we met turned out to be pretty empty that night, which was something I didn’t foresee. The buyer wound up being a perfectly nice guy buying a tablet for his kids, but the experience still shook me. It was embarrassing, how naive I was, and now I take appropriate measures to maximize safety. I prefer mail order, but when in-person transactions have to happen, it must be in a public, somewhat busy venue (not a street or parking lot), it needs to be a fair enough distance from my actual home, and a companion must always be present. And, of course, sold devices are always wiped and zero’ed out. 

Something clearly happens to common sense when otherwise savvy people form connections online. Perhaps it’s a longing for the past. The Internet was once a simpler, more innocent place. In the early era of the Web, and even those GOPHER-rife days before it, it was an environment of optimistic, idealistic engineers and academics. And now, even though the grifters and sharks have descended upon it, there’s an enduring optimism that still lives on. People repeatedly show a naiveté there that they’d never have in the real world — like bring cash to meet strangers in an empty parking lot, or accept a series of excuses from a would-be romantic partner who doesn’t want to meet in person. And yet, it happens all the time. It just doesn’t always make the headlines. 

So what can we learn from all this? Well, perhaps that human beings will do what they’ve always done: look for love, make a profit, cast deceptions or even victimize others. In the end, the method or venue doesn’t really matter. What happened to that Myrtle Beach victim is a good reminder that we need to be as vigilant online as we are in real life. Perhaps even more so.

 

UPDATE: Manti Te’o admitted to lying about his girlfriend. In an interview with Katie Couric, he maintains that he was fooled at first — and was truly in grief over what he thought was her death — but continued the charade even after finding out it wasn’t true. Click here for more.