Let's not let old, '90s-era prejudices get in the way here. For some, relationships begun online — or carried out exclusively over the Web — can be just as involved and "real" as any other romance.
"It probably doesn't happen to a large percentage of people, but it happens occasionally, and it's very intense," Joseph Walter, a communications scientist at Michigan State University, told TechNewsDaily sister site Livescience.
Before you give your heart away, however, make sure your new friend checks out. Verifying an online persona doesn't take long and doesn't require stalking. Even Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o's recently-revealed fake girlfriend could have been caught much earlier if Te'o, or the journalists who covered his relationship, had followed a few tips:
Look for your friend's social media accounts. Most people who are active online have a Facebook account, for example. Make sure all the accounts associated with your friend match one another, and check if the people he or she is friends with on all the accounts seem consistent.
Check references to your friend's school or employers. You don't need to directly contact the school or employer. Just a little search-engine work can be helpful. College newspapers often mention their students, whether for being on sports teams, organizing on campus, or for man-on-the-street interviews. Many companies' websites list their staff.
Watch out if your friend does not seem to want to meet in person, misses planned meetings, or cuts them short.
Another suspicious trait is if someone you've met online has a lot of dramatic, tragic events in his or her life. This was true of "Lennay Kekua," the persona Te'o says he believed was a real woman until a Deadspin story revealed she does not exist. Kekua supposedly suffered a car accident, then was diagnosed with leukemia soon afterward.
Nev Shulman, star of a documentary and an MTV show about faked online romances, both called "Catfish," told ABC News that he often sees stories about car accidents and cancer from deceptive online partners. "Catfished" has become a slang term for what happened to Te'o, who has said he did not know his girlfriend's persona was fake and that he was the victim of a hoax.
"If I were to go back and say to Manti now, as hard as this is to hear, the likelihood of your girlfriend getting into a terrible car accident only to discover that she has leukemia, in my eyes indicates that there very well might be something going on here," Shulman said.
To check on extraordinary accidents or deaths, you can search for articles in local newspapers. Many families pay for obituaries to appear in their hometown paper. Deadspin found no such coverage of Kekua's accident and death.
With all the red flags surrounding Kekua, several anonymous people Deadspin interviewed thought Te'o was likely part of the ruse, which garnered him sympathetic media coverage throughout the past year. We'll leave confirming such suspicious to other outlets. For those sincerely interested in starting or maintaining a relationship online: Stay safe. And it doesn't hurt to do a little Googling.
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