Te’o faces questions about whether he really was duped, as he claimed, or whether he was complicit in the hoax. (Robert Duyos/Sun Sentinel/MCT)

Maybe Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o was a hapless victim of a cruel internet hoax, as he now claims. Or, maybe he was in on the prank involving a dead girlfriend who, as it turns out, never even existed.

In either case, the bizarre story that had the sports world abuzz last week has brought the term “catfishing” into the public eye—and given educators concerned with teaching students about web safety another risk to be aware of.

On Jan. 16, Te’o and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said the player was drawn into a virtual romance with a woman who used the phony name Lennay Kekua, and was fooled into believing she died of leukemia in September. They said his only contact with the woman was via the internet and telephone.

Te’o also lost his grandmother—for real—the same day his girlfriend supposedly died, and his role in leading Notre Dame to its best season in decades endeared him to fans and put him at the center of one of college football’s feel-good stories of the year.

Now, there are questions about whether he really was duped, as he claimed, or whether he and the university were complicit in the hoax and misled the public, perhaps to improve his chances of winning the Heisman Trophy. Te’o came in second in the Heisman voting, propelled by one of the most compelling plot lines of the season.

Yahoo sports columnist Dan Wetzel said the case has “left everyone wondering whether this was really the case of a naïve football player done wrong by friends or a fabrication that has yet to play to its conclusion.”

The story also has propelled “catfishing” into the public consciousness, reinforcing how people can be manipulated easily via social media. And that’s a lesson that web safety experts hope will catch on among students.

(Next page: What “catfishing” is—and how students can protect themselves)

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