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