On-Line Relationships: The Dangers Beyond Catfishing

by sockii

We've all heard about "Catfishing" - pretending to be someone other than yourself online. But there are other dangers in getting close to people we only know on-line.

"Catfishing" has become a subject of great discussion these days, after the recent movie Catfish, the related tv series, and of course the 2013 scandal surrounding football player Manti Te'o. But pretending to be a different person in such a fashion is far from the only type of internet scam, fraud, or potential danger that can be found online, where we sometimes build business relationships, friendships, and even romances with people we may have never met face-to-face.

Teenagers and young adults often dismiss the warnings of their parents and other authority figures about how to take care and be cautious with meeting and talking with people on the internet. Those younger folks are all so sure that something bad could never happen to them; they're certain they're too smart and they'd see right through someone who's a danger, a liar, a possible "bad person" who could cause them harm. But the truth is you just can honestly never know who you're dealing with on-line - sometimes even after you have met them in person under limited conditions. And while many of my best, longest-lasting friendships today are ones that began on-line, I also have a few strange and one really scary story to share about when things didn't go that well.

Fortunately nothing bad happened to me, but a person I considered a good online friend ended up being nothing like the person he presented himself to be. Today he is serving a federal prison sentence for terrible crimes committed against children - he was even spotlighted before being brought to justice on the America's Most Wanted television series! I wanted to share this story as a warning to everyone else out there, especially young people.

This could happen to anyone. This could very easily happen to you, and the results could be far more serious than they were for me.

Image above courtesy kolobsek at morguefile.com.

The documentary that left everyone guessing. Have you seen it?

"Catfish" is the 2010 documentary that left people talking, debating, and added the term "catfishing" to our online vocabulary. One day photographer Nev Schulman receives a surprise package in the mail: a painting based on one of his images, painted by an 8-year old girl in Michigan. As he begins communicating with Abby on Facebook and is friended by the rest of her family, he finds himself romantically attracted to her older sister Megan. But are Megan, Abby and the rest of the family at all who they say they are? Some have wondered about the reality of this documentary, or if it was all staged from the beginning. You'll have to watch it for yourself to decide, but in either case it's a fascinating study of how one can get caught up in a web of lies and deception when building online relationships.

My Story: In the beginning...

Making friends around the world online for the first time.

M.I.T.M.I.T. Photo: Jack Marion on Flickr, licensed

under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericI was an undergraduate student at M.I.T. in the early 90s, when the internet was just really beginning to grow as a popular and widespread form of communication and connection. Beyond having our own university-only "chat service", we had access to the web as a whole through the campus computer labs which students used almost equally for fun and games as for completing classwork. I often spent my "downtime" hanging out online in certain Usenet newsgroups related to my hobbies and favorite musicians, and through one such newsgroup ended up finding a mailing list devoted to one of my favorite rock band. People on the list were all deeply devoted fans such as myself and we would enjoy lengthy discussions about the group's songs and albums, past performances, news as the band was getting ready to tour again, and even swapping tapes and other collectibles through the mail.

It was a fun group of people and I enjoyed making friendships with people all around the world through the list. Many of us began to get to know each other "beyond the music" as conversations would go off-topic or diverge to more personal discussion. About 20 or 30 of us ended up creating a private spin-off mailing list, so we could continue these conversations and develop our friendships even more. I continued my involvement with both the main and spin-off mailing lists as in 1994 I moved from Cambridge to Philadelphia to enter graduate school studies. By that time I had my own computer and internet connection (oh, the dial-up days!) in my apartment so I really began spending more time on-line and developing on-line friendships (these people all seemed much more interesting and "like me" than some of my overly studious U. Penn classmates!)

Z. (I won't use his real name or even initial here) was member of our off-topic mailing list, in fact one of the more active founders of it. Z. was quite popular with everyone in our group as he was friendly, outspoken, and seemed to have a cool job working with high-tech computers for a particular government agency. It wasn't anything top secret but he sometimes had interesting scientific stories to share from his work.

Z. was also an avid cinephile and fan of many science fiction shows, as I was at the time. Much of the conversation in our little spin-off group was about Babylon 5, Star Trek, and certain films and filmmakers we shared an appreciation for. Z. had quite a film collection at home and would often send me copies of some of his favorite films, which he was collecting "special edition" releases of, so we could talk about things in more depth. I remember that his favorite film of all time was Leon, by French director Luc Besson. One of the first videos he sent me a copy of was the Extended Cut of the film, which was considered too controversial at the time because of the way it portrayed the relationship between the title character and Natalie Portman's 12-year old character, Mathilda. I didn't think anything was weird about that at the time...but perhaps in retrospect that should have been one of my first warnings about Z.

Making Contact

Meeting my online "friend" for the first time

KeyboardImage creditBy the late 90s, I had become more and more involved in fandom (both music and media-based) online and had started meeting some of the people I had only known as screennames in person. I was going to science fiction conventions, sometimes rooming with other women I'd never met before except on mailing lists. I'd had a few gatherings at my apartment for fans of one particular TV show. It maybe seemed a little risky for a 20-something single female but I felt confident that I knew how to take care of myself, and was good at telling apart "weirdos" from "normal people".

During those years I had the opportunity to meet Z. several times. Once he was in Philadelphia for a presentation or conference related to his job, so we met up afterward for a couple drinks and a chat. He seemed totally normal and about what I'd expected, having seen photos of him before: a little heavyset, about 20 years older than me, and perhaps just a little quieter and reserved than he came across online. I'd never had any romantic interests in him and did not feel as though he was showing any interest in me either, which was fine. I just enjoyed our friendship and ability to talk about a lot of different subjects.

The second time we met up was for a concert by our favorite musician in the Philly area; I'd ended up with an extra ticket and no local friends who wanted to go, so Z. came up for the evening to go to the show with me. The third time we met was the only time it was with other people, including my mother and several other people from our original music mailing list. Z. had managed to get great tickets to a concert in Baltimore for us all, so we had a fun night meeting up and going to the concert. I remember my mother (who was so thrilled to have seen the concert from such great seats) saying what a nice group of friends I had from this mailing list.

That was 1999. It was the last time I would see any of these people again in person. I'm not sure exactly what happened, except that I sort of drifted away from that band's fandom and even eventually unsubscribed from the spin-off mailing list. My interests were changing, my life was busy as I bought my first condo and then my mother and I went into business together in Philly. I still was making online friendships but with different groups of people. I didn't even think about Z. or anyone else from the group for quite a few years...until one of our old group eventually found me via Facebook.

Learning the truth

A shocking discovery years later...

Image creditImage creditI was happy to have heard from one of my old friends when he contacted me on Facebook as I'd lost touch with everyone from our group. But one of the first things he said as we started messaging and catching up was "Z.'s in prison now," which just about made my jaw drop on the floor. I asked for details but he didn't really seem to want to get into them; nevertheless it didn't take me too long to do some Google searching and find out the truth myself.

Several years after I'd dropped out of the group - and had my last conversations with Z. - law enforcement was called in to investigate after his employers apparently noticed suspicious levels of downloading activity on his work computer. On it they found over 1,000,000 images of extremely young girls, and girls in their early teens, in suggestive poses. He admitted to downloading such files from the internet for over 10 years. Even worse, when his home was searched they found more photos, some of these featuring Z. with a young female relative engaged in sexual acts together. Z. fled the country after being indicted but then surrendered himself to authorities after being spotlighted on the tv series America's Most Wanted. (Much of what I found out about what had happened was through the show's website.)

I was horrified - and almost physically ill - to learn about all of this. I couldn't believe that I had been friends with someone who could have done such things, that I could have never even suspected him of anything "weird" or "off" after all our conversations online and in person. I thought back on the few times I had met with Z. in person, all on my own without having even told anyone else, any local friends or family members, who I was meeting with and where we were going. Of course, I suppose being in my mid-20s I guess I was too old for his interests anyway (another disturbing thought), but it still gave me pause to consider myself extremely lucky and fortunate. I wondered if he had perhaps befriended any younger girls online like he had befriended me, and what might have happened - or continued to happen if he hadn't been caught.

On one of my old laptop computers I found I still had many of our old emails saved, some from group conversations, some from our private emails back and forth. Out of morbid curiosity I found myself re-reading them, looking for any clues, any hints...anything I should have noticed back then that I had completely glossed over. There were a few odd things, comments about women and sexuality that in retrospect read as a little odd or disturbing. But, truthfully and perhaps sadly, none of them were that different than some of the sexist/misogynistic language women deal with regularly in our society and is often dismissed as just "guy talk" or a "guy thing". There was nothing that would have or should have stood out to me or anyone else in our group as a blatant "red flag" that Z. was a pedophile. Nothing that should have warned me to stay away or to perhaps be more cautious in dealing with him.

In Retrospect

What I've learned about being cautious with online groups and relationships

It's been a couple years since I learned the truth about Z., but it's still something that bothers me when I think back on it - and leaves me more cautious than before about with whom and how I make online friendships. I would never, ever agree to meet with someone I only knew online by myself again - certainly not without telling many other people where I would be and checking in regularly with them. I think back on some of the things I've done like that, with other people other than Z., and just consider myself extremely lucky that it's generally always worked out just fine.

I've re-established my connection with our old "off-topic" list (miraculously still going for almost 20 years now!) and learned of the troubling fates of a few other folks from the original group. But then, I suppose that's just like any group of people you might meet - in your neighborhood, at your office, in another club or social group. But the internet does give people a whole other wall of separation, a way to disguise who they really are, that makes it so much more difficult sometimes to avoid danger. You can be smart, you can think you're savvy, you can believe you could never get fooled by someone like that - and yet it can happen far more easily than you might think.

Updated: 02/02/2017, sockii
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NanciArvizu on 06/05/2015

Where to begin... When you experienced what you shared things were still emerging, like online stranger danger. How odd to think we were more afraid of people in person than online. People are people no matter where you meet them and you can never be too careful.

The way the world is today, it is almost expected to eventually see someone you know - in real life or online - in the news.

Younger generations will become more of everything - victims and predators - as the world evolves. So interesting and so scary at the same time.

Great article. Thank you for sharing.

Mira on 06/04/2015

Interesting. As with ologsinquito's articles about narcissistic behavior, I am learning that sometimes you just can't tell with some people. Glad you wrote this. I shudder thinking of young people who go into online relationships with all the enthusiasm of youth. The (online) world is much changed from the 1990s.

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