Internet Profile Deception: She May Not Be Who You Think
Some say that when they met their significant other, it was love at first sight. In Manti Te’o’s case, it was love at first click. The Notre Dame linebacker and Heisman Trophy runner-up fell hard for Lennay Kukua. The problem: Lennay Kukua never existed. Te’o was victim of an Internet scam, what has been dubbed “catfishing.” Ronaiah Tuiasosopo used a woman’s photo, without her knowledge or consent, to create a fake persona. Te’o believed that Kukua did exist, and over time he began to refer to her as his girlfriend.
Earlier this year, in a shocking and controversial announcement, Te’o learned that this relationship had been fake and that he was a victim of “catfishing.” Internet relationships are not new news, but the notion that one can hide behind the veil of the Internet in order to reap benefits at another’s expense is catching quite a bit of media attention. In this particular elaborate scheme, a person creates a fake profile containing false information. This information is created to lure a person into communicating with the hoaxer and, ideally, fall in love with this made-up person.
The goal of this Internet deception, in most cases, is for the hoaxer to get something, primarily money. In fact, early in the “relationship,” Te’o was asked by Kukua to give her his bank account information. According to Ariel Schilman, the Executive Producer of the MTV show “Catfish,” in an interview with CNN, this scam is “shockingly prevalent.” He additionally noted to the fact that a single scammer can have several fake profiles running at the same time, or that a single fake online identity could be scamming several people simultaneously. In fact, the Kukua persona was scamming people other than Te’o as well.
A number of states currently have laws that make it a crime to impersonate someone over the Internet with the intent to cause harm. New York’s law (Penal Law §190.25(4)) is broad enough in that it would most likely encompass this type of Internet deception. The law states that an individual is guilty when he “[i]mpersonates another [over the ] internet . . . with intent to obtain a benefit or injure or defraud another . . . .”
Arizona is in the process of passing a law that would make it a crime to impersonate someone over the Internet, however this statutory language is much narrower than New York. Under this proposed law, an online impersonation only occurs when the individual impersonates without the other’s consent. This is of course an issue if the fake profile is of someone that does not exist–a person that does not exist cannot give consent.