The Miami Heat’s Chris “Birdman” Andersen isn’t a child pornographer, he’s just extremely gullible. That’s the resolution of one of the weirdest stories to hit the sports world since, well, the last weird story about an athlete falling for an Internet hoax. Here’s some background info for those of you unfamiliar with the Birdman saga. In May 2012, while he was playing for the Denver Nuggets, police in Colorado began investigating Andersen for “unknown Internet crimes against children,” as the Denver Post put it at the time. The substance of the case seemed to involve allegations that Andersen had had consensual sex with and received lascivious images of a 17-year-old girl. Andersen was never charged with any crime, but the public drew its own conclusions, and the allegations nearly destroyed his career.
Andersen always claimed that he was the one being victimized; that the girl had claimed she was 21, and that she later tried to blackmail Andersen into buying her things. It turns out he was telling the truth—sort of. As various outlets reported yesterday, both Andersen and the girl had allegedly been “catfished” by a third party: a Manitoba woman named Shelly Lynn Chartier who allegedly had tricked both Andersen and the girl into thinking that they were corresponding with each other, when they were actually corresponding with her, posing as them. We still know very little about the details of this extremely complicated scheme. But here’s what we do know, as far as I can tell.
Basically, this 17-year-old girl contacted Andersen on her own. Simultaneously, Chartier allegedly gained access to Andersen’s email accounts. With that access, she allegedly put her weird scheme into motion. As Jon Wertheim put it in Sports Illustrated, “the Canadian woman allegedly orchestrated the initial tryst between the player and the California woman. She then began communicating and corresponding with the woman from California. At one point, representing herself as Andersen, the imposter began making demands -- some of them, sources say, sexually explicit -- of the California woman.” It went on and on like this, with both Andersen and the girl thinking they were corresponding with each other, when they were allegedly corresponding with Chartier. “It turned out that it was a Manti Te’o situation. It was Manti Te’o on steroids,” Andersen’s lawyer told ESPN, referring to the former Notre Dame player who made national news last year after he was duped into falling in love with an imaginary woman invented by jerks on the Internet.
Both the Te’o and the Andersen stories qualify as a weird brand of Internet duplicity known as “catfishing.” A catfishing scheme involves pretending to be someone else in order to deceive your target into forming some sort of relationship with your assumed identity. (People do this for a lot of reasons—money, sick thrills—but often just because they are lonely and bored.) The Te’o story was a classic catfishing scam, since “Lennay Kekua” did not actually exist; Birdman Andersen’s story is a bit more complicated, since the object of his affections was a real person.
High-profile athletes are ripe for catfishing. They often have a lot of money; they’re often very gullible; they do not find it abnormal to be propositioned for sex by complete strangers. It’s clear that they could use a guide to how to avoid falling for these sorts of scams. Here is that guide.
Secure your computer and personal data. According to Sports Illustrated, the Andersen scheme kicked into gear when Chartier was able to access Andersen’s “email, social media outlets, his phone, bank records, and even his video game console.” This whole plot falls apart if the woman doesn’t have that access. Athletes—and everyone, really—ought to take the necessary precautions to ward off Internet crime: vary their passwords regularly, use firewalls and other such digital prophylactics, and refrain from clicking on suspicious links and websites. These measures probably won’t stop a professional hacker, but they might be enough to stymie bored women from Manitoba.
Do some research, for the love of God! Many catfishing schemes could be foiled at the outset if the intended target would just invest an hour in some basic, common-sense research. A Google search is a very good tool for determining whether or not someone actually exists, or whether she is actually 17 even though she claims she’s 21. If her Facebook wall is devoid of comments from family and friends, and if she’s consistently the only person tagged in her photos, well, then, she might be a fake—or else a creepy loner, which might be just as bad. You can also use the Internet to check up on your correspondent’s story. If she says she’s going to college, well, then research that college and ask her if she knows the famous Professor Murphy. If she says yes, you can say Well, that’s suspicious, because MURPHY DIED FIVE YEARS AGO. It works in the movies, and it’ll work for you.
Don't start a relationship with someone you haven't met in person. If Wilt Chamberlain's autobiography is to be believed, professional athletes are rarely at a loss for attractive and willing real-world sex partners: locker-room hangers-on, nightclub patrons, other teammates' spouses or mothers. Now, of course, some of these sex partners might be greedy, or have bad intentions; there's no guarantee that someone you pick up in a bar will be a good person. But at least you can be certain that he or she is a person, and not some Internet figment. Athletes worried about catfishing ought to stick to real-world sex, and leave the Internet dating scene for the rest of us poor, flabby, non-famous souls.
Insist on accountability. At some point in any catfishing scam, the catfisher will encounter a question she can’t answer, or a request she can’t fulfill, because, after all, she’s not the person she’s pretending to be. At that point, she’ll devise some excuse for why she can’t meet you in person or talk over video chat, like “My webcam is broken,” or “I am dying of cancer.” Don’t stand for it. Take it from Lou Holtz, and accept no excuses.