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Manti Te'o, pictured Dec. 8 in New York City, is under scrutiny after news broke that his girlfriend did not exist. / Jerry Lai, USA TODAY Sports

The world of modern romance is full of true love stories that started in cyberspace. Unfortunately, there are plenty of other ugly, hurtful tales involving scams, impersonations and harassment.

As sports fans and others try to unravel the truth behind the bizarre case of Notre Dame football star linebacker Manti Te'o and the supposed death of an online girlfriend who may or may not have existed, cyber security experts and psychologists say the story is a reminder that online-dating scams abound.

"The early days of the Internet were all about anonymity, so that people would want to hide their true identity, for even innocent purposes, is well established," says Marian Merritt, Internet Safety Advocate for Norton, maker of antivirus software.

But where posting 10-year-old photos of yourself with more hair or a slimmer waistline "comes from very human motivations of vanity," anonymity to defraud or deceive people is a quite different matter, she says.

The slang term for this is "catfishing" -- "pretending to be someone who you're not on social media," says Parry Aftab,an Internet privacy and security lawyer, and executive director of WiredSafety.org, an online education and assistance group.

"It's done all the time," she says, and can range from siblings pulling a prank on one another to cases of harassment.

"Sixty percent to 70% of cyber bullying or cyber harassment cases occur anonymously or with fake impersonated accounts," says Aftab. A number of the bullying cases that ended in suicide involved impersonations in which someone pretended to like the victim, she adds.

The hard truth of Internet dating, says Aftab, is "never believe anything you see online. People can be anyone they want to be. They can pretend to be 10 people. They can pretend to be you."

Even with all of the Internet safety education and awareness efforts, "we still hear these kinds of stories about online dating scams," says Merritt.

It's a lesson that parents today need to impart on their computer-using, smart-phone-toting grade-school-age children and continue emphasizing throughout high school and when they go off to college, says parenting psychologist Susan Bartell of suburban New York.

"Some kids have online lives that are way bigger than their real lives," she says. Even for those who have a healthy balance, "online relationships are never going to go away. It's not going to happen. So that means helping them balance healthy real-life intimate relationships with whatever is going on online."

Part of that includes following them on Twitter, friending them on Facebook, and texting them, says Bartell. "Get in the trenches with them and pay attention to their online world. Be interested."

And when it comes to online dating, teach them to be wary.

"It's not dissimilar to booking travel arrangements sight unseen," says Merritt. "In those cases we turn to trusted sources to help us out. When online, stick to sites that do some kind of vetting of who joins up; stick to trusted rules of the road.

"If there are inconsistencies, if their story doesn't stick together, you should be suspicious."

Says Aftab, "We have to protect ourselves online because there is no one else who can protect us. ... We often put ourselves as risk because our hearts are wide open."



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Te'o case reminds us: 'Never believe anything' online

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