Columbo, Catfish, and Courthouse News: Be careful out there!
A few weeks ago, I was eating a late lunch and turned on the TV and watched the Katie Couric talk show for the first time. She was talking to two 20-something guests about the perils of online dating. They talked about ways to protect yourself from deceptive “catfishing” by using Google image search or examining social network profiles for inconsistencies and at one point Katie said “My gosh, you have to be like Columbo these days!”. Both of her young guests smiled politely but their blank faces made it clear they had no idea who Columbo was.
One of the guests was Nev Schulman from the movie Catfish. If you don’t know this story, Nev met a woman named Megan online who was gorgeous and a dancer and a singer and he fell in love. When he showed up on her doorstep to meet her in person, Megan turned out to be a 40-something housewife named Angela who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and caring for two disabled stepsons. Part of the reason Nev was on the Katie show was to advertise his new TV show (Catfish the TV show). In this show, Nev travels the country visiting people who are involved in online relationships with people who always seem to turn out to be imposters hiding behind fake profiles. He teaches them how to investigate their online loves and dispenses a blend of empathy and sincerity that is very likable while their fantasies crumble about their feet.
Shortly after I watched this show, I saw a story at Courthouse News about a woman suing Match.com for $10M because someone she met on their website “hid in her garage, stabbed her 10 times and kicked her in the head until she ‘stopped making the gurgling noise’”. She says Match.com didn’t warn her about the possibility of meeting “an individual whose intention was not to find a mate, but to find victims to kill or rape”. She did not sue her attacker. She couldn’t. He died in prison while “serving 28 to 70 years for killing an ex-girlfriend”.
“What happened to Mary Kay Beckman is horrible, but this lawsuit is absurd,” Match.com said. “The many millions of people who have found love on Match.com and other online dating sites know how fulfilling it is. And while that doesn’t make what happened in this case any less awful, this is about a sick, twisted individual with no prior criminal record, not an entire community of men and women looking to meet each other.”
It isn’t as though these are isolated cases or very, very fringe behavior. These are sad, sad stories involving a pretty universal desire to be loved and cherished. It’s been hard to miss the publicity surrounding Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o and his own catfishing experience with a very unlucky (and then dead and then alive again) girlfriend. The “girlfriend” turned out to be a disturbed young man who once auditioned for the television show The Voice.
It’s a difficult issue. We’ve worked a couple of cases where people were assaulted by others they had met online. One case involved a minor girl and the other involved a grown woman. In both cases, the assailant lied about who they were, how old they were, and what their intentions were, while all the while enticing the victim to meet them. Both stories were horribly sad and life-changing for the victim. Yet, in both situations, our mock jurors said the fault lay with the victim for “lying to her mother and meeting this guy” or “telling him where she lived”. Jurors thought these women had learned a very hard and cruel lesson but they should not be compensated by the online service for using bad judgment.
There are discussions occurring as to how to respond from a legal standpoint to the perpetrators of these hoaxes. In our experience, jurors think these are examples of poor personal responsibility by the victim of the hoax. The online service was scrutinized, but overall the mock jurors felt that users of these services know that there is no vetting of community members, and anyone who assumes authenticity in online disclosures is, at best, naïve. This is an area we will keep up with as new definitions and practices emerge to keep up with our changing definitions of what constitutes a “relationship” in a social media world.