Monday, January 21, 2013

Manti, Münchausen by Internet and Miami's own cyber cancer hoax

The Manti Te'o saga has enthralled the sports world and thrust the term "catfish" into the national spotlight. The Notre Dame linebacker certainly embellished and played up the tragedy of his supposed girlfriend's death. But I do believe he was the victim of an elaborate hoax.

And yes, people on the Internet are certainly capable of long-running cruelty.

In October, I wrote about the San Roman family, who for three years purported (via Facebook and a blog) to be a well-to-do family in Spain and Miami that had been terribly affected by cancer. Using the powerful cancer card, the two "brothers" romanced young girls in South Miami-Dade, speaking to them endlessly on the phone,  trading texts and later (creepily) stalking them in person.

It was, of course, all a lie perpetuated by a Doral Chinese restaurant owner. Police and prosecutors investigated the imposter, but no crime could be proved. Just a lot of emotional damage inflicted.

The first story you can read here. Long read, but the payoff is worth it.

The sidebar on similar cases is here. And here is the final installment, when we discovered the identity of the young New York City man whose photos had been stolen to create the fictional family. 

The San Roman scam and the Manti Te'o ordeal share some similarities.

Each hoax was intricate and lasted for years. And each began first on Facebook, where it's easy to accept a "friend" request -- and create a detailed fictional life. According to Manti's own account, his "girlfriend" first appeared on the social media site during his freshman year. Facebook eventually turned to text messages and phone conversations. Promised face-to-face visits always fizzled.

And most importantly, each scam involved a character ill with cancer, a powerful story line that elicits  great sympathy and tends to limit probing questions.  The lies, of course, eventually become unsustainable and the character must be killed off. 

Some experts call this type of hoax a form of Münchausen disorder, in which people create illnesses to garner attention. “Münchausen by Internet” was first coined by Dr. Marc Feldman, a University of Alabama psychiatrist.

Feldman told me Monday that he sees some "eerie parallels" in Manti's case and many others that he's studied. It bothers him that people have taken to calling the behavior "catfishing," an ode to the "Catfish" movie that depicted a similar hoax.

"It takes it out of the psychological and study-able range and makes it into a pop fad," Feldman said.

He was not surprised that Manti's fake girlfriend was killed off, a common event in people suffering from "MBI."

"These tend to be very creative, audacious individuals willing to do what it takes to thoroughly hoodwink another person," Feldman said. "Even the most master sociopath has some trouble over time keeping the plate spinning and keeping track of all the lies."

In the Miami case, the person behind the scam admitted to being confused and lonely, saying the only way to make friends was to create this alternate reality. In the Manti Te'o case, the unusual wrinkle here is that California man identified as the mastermind appears to have enlisted others to help him carry out scams on several people. (Dr. Feldman, in a recent article, chronicled the case of a brother-and-sister duo who duped a woman by claiming to have multiple sclerosis). We still haven't heard from alleged mastermind Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. For now, his motivation is still unknown.

Thanks for the time. I'll have more thoughts as the saga unfolds. You can follow me on Twitter: @davidovalle305

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Update: Cindy Choi's Facebook gone

Cindy Choi, who created a blog and series of Facebook pages posing as a cancer-stricken family for three years, no longer has her own personal Facebook page.

It's not clear if Facebook terminated her account, or if Choi and her family took it down in light of the recent publicity.

The 28-year-old Doral restaurant owner had always maintained her own personal page, separate from Kevin and Lucas San Roman, the two brothers she created using photos stolen from the pages of a Pittsburgh family.

Kevin, who claimed to have leukemia,  attracted hundreds of friends in South Dade, while cultivating romances with several teenage girls via Facebook, text message and phone conversations. When he died, Lucas continued wooing young girls while advocating cancer causes.

I managed to view Choi's private Facebook page, which struck me as wholly normally if at times excessive -- she posted constantly. The photos were normal, depicting everything from a family cruise, vacations in her native Colombia, nights out with friends.

There were some key links to the "San Roman" pages. Choi frequently posted photos of an adorable toddler boy, the son of her family's business partner. 
But at the same time, "Lucas" posted the exact same photos, except the baby's name was "Tommy" and he was purportedly a little cousin to the San Roman brothers.

The Chois' business partner was floored when I told him about the use of his son's image. He agreed to an interview at their Coconut Grove restaurant. But less than hour before the interview, his cousin called me to say that the family decided against an interview because "Cindy is a good person."

Choi and her creation, "Lucas," also shared a penchant for constantly posting inspirational and motivational sayings, sometimes the exact same ones.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Neiman reaction plus more stalking episodes

This week got a little crazy with the revelation that the "San Roman" family images were stolen from the Facebook pages of a Pittsburgh family. The Neimans have been very gracious in sharing their story -- and also very adamant that the girls in Miami are the true victims.

Noah, in sharing our story with his Facebook followers, posted this message:

"I hesitantly post the following story: I'm only doing so for the fact that it is a haunting reminder that we must be careful with the private material we so readily put at the public's disposal: I will clarify that I am not the victim; Mayb
e of identity theft, but that is not of concern. The families of the girls who were manipulated into thinking they were talking to someone they were not are. Please take a moment to read the story, and think twice before pouring every aspect of your life online. "

Stay tuned. I'm sure there will be more stories down the road.


I did want to share a couple more stalking incidents that I wasn't able to expand on earlier.

* The 22-year-old West Miami-Dade woman, who had an online romance with Kevin, told me about the time that she went out to a bachelorette party on South Beach. She never told Kevin where she was going -- but yet he began texting her exact details about her night. Cindy Choi, clearly, followed the girl to the bar. Kevin claimed he had gone there to meet her but left abruptly because he saw her interacting with another guy.

* Kaitlin Masters, who had a relationship with Kevin's younger brother Lucas, at one point received a disturbing photo from Lucas. It was a photo of the outside of the Masters' West Miami-Dade home. Lucas - of course, a creation of Cindy Choi - claimed that his older sister who lived in Sunny Isles had been in the area, passed by and took the photo.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

UPDATE: Image of Kevin actually a NYC celebrity fitness trainer

Today, I spoke with Noah Neiman, a New York City fitness trainer with a growing following across the county. His images and those of his family were stolen by Cindy Choi and used to fuel the San Roman blog. Here's the story:


In real life, Noah Neiman is a gregarious, chiseled New York City celebrity fitness trainer.
On Facebook, unbeknownst to him, his images — and those of his family — were used to create a fictional Miami cancer patient named Kevin San Roman, who romanced teenage girls and fooled hundreds of supporters for three years.
Authorities unraveled the scam in July after being alerted by a Kendall school teacher whose daughter had fallen for Kevin’s fictional brother. The strange saga, perpetrated by a 28-year-old Doral restaurant owner, Cindy Choi, was chronicled in Sunday’s Miami Herald.
Neiman learned of the identity theft a year ago and complained to Facebook about someone using his image on the “San Roman” page. Then, a friend sent him the Sunday article, which included a photo of him used on Choi’s fictional Facebook page. He immediately recognized Choi as an usually dogged fan who constantly “liked” and commented on his own Facebook posts for years.
“For this to happen, it really puts a reality check on our whole media culture and our obsession with Facebook and Twitter and posting our private lives so publicly,” said Neiman. However, he didn’t know the fake Facebook page included dozens of his family photos. Choi also used images of Neiman’s younger brother to create another character, Lucas San Roman, who also wooed girls from South-Miami Dade.
“I can deal with my photo being stolen. I’m a grown boy,” Neiman said. “But I’m frustrated. I care about my brother. And I feel extremely terrible for these girls.”

Read more here:

Monday, October 8, 2012

More cancer hoaxes

I wanted to share a few links about other cancer fakes that were valuable in researching the San Roman case.

This case involves a hoax that went on for 11 years:

This blog exposed the long-running scam:

I'm told that 20/20 will air a package on this case on Friday.


This is also a good piece, by Mary Elizabeth Williams of Salon:

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Kevin's strange stalking

There were a few more anecdotes that I could not fit into my print story.

Many of them come from the 22-year-old West Miami-Dade woman who struck up a romantic relationship with Kevin San Roman. When they first became Facebook friends, she saw that they shared over 60 “mutual friends.” The girl, who did not want her name used because she fears Cindy Choi, eventually stopped talking to “Kevin” because of several scary episodes.

The McFlurry episode – the first stalkeresque incident -- is detailed in my article. Among the other stories she shared:

* One night, she was studying at the Florida International University library. She walked to her car in the mostly empty parking garage when she noticed a strange car idling nearby.

Alarmed, she got into her car and drove off quickly. As she drove away, a text message arrived from Kevin.

It read something to this effect: “You should really be more careful walking to your car at night.” Kevin explained that he was in the area and was going to stop her to say hello, but she peeled out too quickly.

The girl scoffed. To prove it, Kevin described via text exactly what she was wearing.

The young woman told me that she never broadcast, on Facebook or otherwise, that she was at FIU. The only conclusion: Choi, AKA Kevin, had followed her from her home.

* On another occasion, the girl said, she finished studying at the FIU library, returned to her car and found it papered with hundreds of yellow post-it notes with various romantic messages.

* In September 2010, Kevin and his family were supposed to go to the Shakira concert at AmericanAirlines Arena. But when his platelet levels grew too low, Kevin had to stay home. His family, he claimed, nevertheless was to attend the show.

The girl and her family were also supposed to attend the concert, separately. While at the show, Kevin sent her a text describing a family member sitting in a certain section on the floor seats.

Looking back, the girl and her family realized, Choi must have been at the show and picked out a random person out of the crowd to make believe his family was in the arena.

Choi's private Facebook page shows that on Sept. 27, 2010, the day of the concert, Choi posted the following from her mobile phone: “Shakira :)))))”

Certainly, it seems Choi indeed attended the concert.

* Toward the end of their relationship, Kevin called the girl at work. Her phone’s caller ID showed an odd name: Cindy Choi.

When the girl asked her about the name, Kevin claimed that his phone was registered to his aunt.

Herald story links

Here is the link to my main story on the San Roman cancer scam:

Here is the second story, a sidebar on Facebook predators overall: