'Catfish' are jumping all over Internet dating scene

Wayne and Wanda

Wayne: Poor Manti Te'o -- you've really gotta feel for the guy. We've all been there, right? Meet someone awesome. Talk and text all day. Fall head-over-heels in love. Tell all your friends and family. Become super-serious. Make big plans for the future. Then, one day out of the blue, things end up being too good to be true and suddenly your heart is smashed into six million pieces. That's love, though - some couples just aren't built for the long haul.

What's that? Manti and girlfriend never actually met? Say whaaaat?!?

Modern dating sure is complicated, and modern communication is possibly the greatest and worst thing to happen to it. If we choose, we can be more connected than ever - to lovers, to complete strangers, to everyone in between. We can put so much of our lives on social media, dating sites and mainstream media that it's easy to let those profiles do the talking for us. It's also easy to fabricate our lifestyles and existences, a little or a lot. And it's easier than ever for lonely hearts -- and even some not-so-lonely ones -- to get entirely invested in a virtual idea, image or identity without any evidence that any of it is legit.

Have our dating lives become so virtual these days that we can technically date someone for nearly a year and never actually meet them? Is this the norm? Or is this the way of the modern hopeless romantic? The actions of the naïve? The desperation of someone whose loneliness overwhelms their common sense?

And at what point in a virtual romance do things begin to smell, um, fishy?


Wanda: The term "catfish" is -- according to Wikipedia -- a person who creates fake online profiles, takes other people's photos and info, and pretends to be someone usually cooler and better looking than they actually are. (OK, I added that last part.)

I admit it: My go-to guilty-pleasure TV show is MTV's "Catfish." Inspired by his own semi-heartbreaking, hoodwinked experience that he turned into a fascinating documentary film, host Nev Schulman helps to unite the virtually involved. Usually, the would-be couples connect online but haven't met face-to-face. Nev and his crew do detective work to determine whether all is legit. Surprise! Often, it's not. The hot babe is actually a mousy BFF. The cool guy is actually a girl. And on and on.

Poor Te'o is just the first semi-famous person we know of to have fallen for a catfish, so the media's making a big example out of him. While there's a car-accident appeal to these scenarios, they are also cautionary tales. That hot guy from your high school graduating class could actually be that sneaky rival who always wanted to sink you. Or, that lovely, wholesome, Midwestern sweetie who claims to have found you through a mutual friend and starts up a flirty chat session could actually be some bored dude who's tired of playing video games and decides messing with people's lives is way more exciting.


Wayne: Usually, though, these catfish are really confused, sad or even mentally ill people who are living out their fantasies inside a big digital disguise. They often aren't out to hurt others -- they're out there to connect and feel wanted, important and loved by someone that they feel they could never attract in their real lives. That attention becomes warming and intoxicating, and before long their lie has engulfed someone else's life. Or sometimes multiple people's lives. It's a ticking time bomb that almost always blows up in a big way.

While it's easy to take comedic shots or wide-mouthed gawking at this very public scandal, the truth is that two lonely people -- Manti and the person playing the role of his girlfriend -- are embarrassed because of this. And the smoke still hasn't entirely cleared.

I know it's easy to get wrapped up in love, or even the idea of love, but please be careful and smart out in that virtual world.


Wanda: This shouldn't totally scare you away from online dating. I have many friends who have successfully made matches through dating websites as structured as Match.com and eHarmony, and as casual as Plenty of Fish.

At least with dating sites, there's some insurance. There's a clear expectation that you all want to find significant others - which would imply actually meeting in person. But if some random or alleged acquaintance simply parachutes in from the sky and "friends" you -- watch your back.


• Been bitten by a catfish? Living an online dating nightmare? Anxious about the legitimacy of your virtual crush? Tell Wanda and Wayne all about it. They'd love to help. Write them at wanda@adn.com.