"She was smoking hot, unbelievably sexy ... super beautiful." This was how Nev Schulman, a 24-year-old photographer, described Megan, a fellow artist who became friendly with him on Facebook in 2007.
An online courtship began, and Schulman's filmmaking friends documented his excitement. Not until Schulman knocked on Megan's door months later did he discover that his love interest looked nothing like her profile photo. "Megan" was actually Angela, a 40-something wife and mother of two who later said she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Schulman and his friends made a high-profile film, "Catfish," out of being duped by a false Facebook profile. Other cases have had more tragic endings.
In 2006, co-workers Thomas Montgomery and Brian Barrett became so entangled in an online love triangle with a young woman who identified herself as "talhotblond" that Thomas eventually murdered Barrett at their office. Neither man realized that they were fighting over an overweight, middle-aged, stay-at-home mom.
So before falling hard for an online-only acquaintance, here are a few tips, gleaned from "Catfish," to help you detect fraudulent profiles on social networking and dating sites.
1. The perfect person is not a real person. A supermodel or retouched profile photo should raise the first red flag.
2. Be wary if the profile describes a personality that complements your own or is too good to be true. Often, imposters will create interests and activities that mirror your own in order to start a conversation.
3. Check how many friends and followers are listed in the person's network. The average Facebook user has 130 friends. An imposter will often have significantly fewer.
4. Determine whether any of your "mutual friends" have actually met your newest online acquaintance in person.
5. Use search engines to do a quick background check on the name and basic information used in a profile. If the profile claims the person attended Oxford, currently works as a CEO at an international company or runs marathons, you should be able to find mentions of these achievements on alumni, company or running sites, respectively. Schulman admitted that Googling Megan earlier in their relationship could have saved him a great deal of embarrassment and heartbreak.
6. Peruse posted pictures and albums carefully. A real person will often have pictures with friends and family, who will have tagged and commented on photos. By contrast, imposters will often use modeling photos featuring only glamorous shots of the individual rather than group photos.
7. Don't be tricked if your friend has multiple people who vouch for him or her online. One person can easily make multiple accounts to make it appear as if there is a support network of family and friends.
8. Imposters will often try to interact with your own friends and family members to create a broader sense of familiarity and build up a broader network of trust.
9. Finally, if you've been harmed by someone who posted a fake profile, report it to site monitors and authorities. Although it may be humiliating to be duped online, authorities will be able to identify imposters and close their accounts more quickly than you working independently.