Online Safety Lessons We Can Learn from the Manti Te'o Scandal

January 17, 2013

When I was studying journalism in college, my professors taught me the importance of double and triple-checking information from our sources.  The phrase “if your mother says she loves you, check it out,” was drilled into my brain beginning the first week of classes.

It was meant to encourage us to question everything, to do our research and to not take anything we were told at face value.

“If your mother says she loves you, check it out” is certainly applicable to journalists. But it’s also good advice for anyone building friendships and relationships online.

By now you’ve probably heard of the Manti Te’o scandal.  

But for those of you who haven’t, here’s a recap: The Te’o saga began as a tear-jerking story of a Notre Dame linebacker who led his team to an undefeated regular season and the national championship game after enduring a series of personal tragedies: his beloved grandmother and girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, died within hours of each other in September.

Te’o’s story had Disney written all over it. A boy falls in love with a girl he claimed to have met at a football game. They have an online, long-distance relationship until she is diagnosed with leukemia and dies. Hours after learning of her death, he leads his team to a victory. He reminisces about their relationship in interviews. He lands the cover of Sports Illustrated and gets nominated for the Heisman trophy.

His story tugged at your heartstrings and catapulted him into the national spotlight.

Even if you could care less about football, you were rooting for Te’o to succeed.  He gained even more fans when he visited the family of a Michigan girl who had recently died of leukemia and loved Notre Dame football.

Yesterday, we learned it was all a hoax.

Te’o’s girlfriend never existed.

Details about the entire scandal are still sketchy and Te’o’s role in this still isn’t clear.

But someone (several news organizations report it was Te’o’s friend Ronaiah Tuiasosopo) created an Instagram and Twitter account in Kekua’s name.  Photos of Kekua are actually that of another girl, whose photos were used without her permission.

Whether he was duped or in on it the entire time is yet to be seen.

But Manti Te’o isn’t the only one.

Each week, MTV’s “Catfish” show chronicles stories of people falling in love online and being fooled when they discover the person they’ve been talking to  for months –even  years – isn’t the person they thought it was.

These stories show just how easy it is to create a persona online: Pick a name. Find a photo of an attractive person online. Create an account on a social networking site.

In the time it takes to order a latte, you can become a whole new person online.

We can all learn lessons from these stories, regardless of whether you’re in an online relationship.

The first lesson is to STOP. THINK. CONNECT. Use your critical thinking skills. Take a moment to really process the information and think things through before you jump headfirst into a relationship.

Here are some other tips:

  • Own your online presence.  Set the privacy and security settings on websites to your comfort level for information sharing. It’s okay to limit how people can find you or communicate with you.  And remember, you don’t need to be friends with everyone. If someone you don’t recognize wants to connect with you, think twice before hitting the “accept” button.
  • If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. I don’t mean to be cynical here. But if an attractive person contacts you out of the blue on a social networking site and starts professing their love for you within days of meeting, this should raise a red flag. Sure, it’s flattering. But chances are the person doesn’t look a thing like they do in photos and in extreme cases, may be trying to con you.
  • Think before you act. If they tell you a sob story about losing their job or a sick relative, this should also raise a red flag. They could be trying to get you to wire them money or give them access to your bank account.
  • Protect your personal information. You wouldn’t tell a stranger on the street your home address, ATM pin number, or social security number, would you? The same rule applies online. Even if you have been talking to someone for a while and don’t think of them as a “stranger,” you still need to be wary, especially if you’ve never met in person.
  • Do your own research.  Pretend you’re a private investigator and do some digging.  Type the person’s name into a search engine and see what comes up. Drag their photo into Google image search. The results could surprise you.
  • Be a good online citizen. What you do online has the potential to affect everyone – at home, at work and around the world. Practicing good online habits benefits the global digital community.
  • Post only about others as you have them post about you.

In the unfortunate (and rare) situation that you become the victim of fraud, you can learn how to get your life back on track with ourVictims of Cybercrime Tip Sheet