It’s a strange experience to get a call from a reporter asking for confirmation that you died a few months ago—when you're alive and well.
That call alerted me to the fact that my Facebook photos had been lifted to create a fictional character by the name of Lennay Kekua. If that name rings a bell, it’s because Lennay was said to be the girlfriend of Manti Te’o, the Heisman Trophy runner-up from Notre Dame. She never existed, but the impact on my life has been all too real.
As this deception became alarmingly public, my images were splashed across every major media outlet in America. In truth, I’m disgusted that someone would pull this prank and use my personal pages without my knowledge—and the only reason I ever found out is that the target of the prank is famous. The hoaxer has reached out to me to apologize, though I can’t believe a word he says after what he's done.
Welcome to the world of unexpected celebrity. I hope Andy Warhol was wrong, as I’d hate to think my 15 minutes of fame amounted to this.
However, I believe that everything happens for a reason. Call it fate or just dumb luck, but I feel the responsibility to share my experience and to initiate a much-needed conversation about social and personal responsibility as my generation creates the rules for social media interaction and etiquette.
I've learned that this form of identity theft, conjuring up a character to attract another person, is not uncommon. In fact, it is becoming a more frequent trend dubbed catfishing. Identities are being stolen every day all over the world in this disturbing way.
Are our intimate identities not worth protecting?
Legislation and laws will never really catch up with such a fast-moving Web because lawmakers don’t know what the next step or advancement will be. Why is no attempt being made for a clear set of rules to protect citizens as social media users? The lack of protection in social media was made clear to me as my identity was stolen and abused. Will we continue to click through all the privacy policies without understanding fully what we are signing over? Are our intimate identities not worth protecting?
I have come up with a few rules as a result of this disrupting experience that I’d like to share.
Rule: Redefine on your own terms what a friend is, and only connect closely with those who you consider friends. Don’t allow yourself to become vulnerable to everyone else.
As a twentysomething who uses social media for both business and as a way of staying connected to my peer group, I probably was too casual about who I allowed as "friends" on Facebook. I let Mark Zuckerberg’s operation define who my friends were.
Rule: Reevaluate each of your friends often and read their timelines and posts. You may notice people you no longer want to be associated with. Had I done this I might have unfriended Ronaiah Tuiasosopo earlier and he would have been forced to request access to my profile, which would have given me clues to his stalking.
Rule: Until Facebook and other social media sites have protected and locked your private photos, only upload material you expect to be copied, stolen and perhaps exploited in some way.
When I first browsed through a gallery of collected images provided by a reporter of Deadspin.com that were stolen from my social media accounts and used as “Lennay Kekua” I realized very quickly that I had no idea how to take my photos back, how to stop whoever had taken my photos, and most importantly, how to take my identity back. If you were in my position, I can guarantee that you would soon find yourself as dumbfounded and lost as I was. What would you have done? Whom would you have contacted?
Rule: Engage with your online associates, acquaintances and friends on a regular basis. It's OK to defriend or change your privacy settings and move people that you engage with less often to a lower priority so those acquaintances have less access to your photos and posts.
As the Te’o story unfolded, I quickly learned that someone had been stalking my social media profiles for over five years to create a two-year relationship with a Notre Dame football star. As a result of this entire scenario, "friended" now has a new meaning to me that is much closer to a four letter word also starting with "f."
Rule: Would you really willingly allow people into your home that you don't know or remember from your past because they start contacting you? The Internet allows people to make connections that are hard to fathom in offline life.
A very troubled man with a lot of psychological issues used me to work out his issues in the only outlet available to him to try to forge a relationship with Te’o by posing as a woman—a woman who looked like me.
In this catfishing scheme, the target was a talented football player, the perpetrator is a man who deems his life so unsatisfactory that he tried to live through an alternative identity, and I am the unwitting participant. I had never heard of Manti Te’o, and I had only known of the perpetrator because we attended the same high school and I, like Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, was living in California.
Online dating continues to grow in today’s digital world. In fact, one in five relationships globally start online. Having my photos preyed upon for more than five years and being repeatedly used without my knowledge to create another “person” highlights this question: How long do you continue a relationship online before making it a reality in everyday life? How do you protect yourself when 80 percent of people are lying on their dating profiles?
I thought I was being cautious, but that was before I knew of the personalities that lurk online and partake in the sick game of catfishing.
Even though the worst part of the scandal has blown over, how do I shake the name of Lennay Kekua and reclaim my own identity? The most earth-shattering realization in this entire situation could possibly be that there is no way to simply go back to January 13, 2013—the last day of my “normal” life as I knew it.