The State Department’s Advice for Avoiding Internet Scams Is Not Idiotic

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Jan. 25 2013 11:48 AM

The State Department’s Advice for Avoiding Internet Scams Is Not Idiotic

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Linebacker Manti Te'o on Jan. 23, 2013, in Bradenton, Fla.

Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images

Even the government is weighing in on the Manti Te’o story—sort of.

On Thursday, the USA.gov blog posted a list of State Department tips to protect yourself from Internet dating scams. Among the warning signs: “The scammer has incredibly bad luck” and asks for money; photos purported to be of the person show someone who is suspiciously good-looking. The advice is culled from a lengthier State Department article on Internet dating scams that includes, among other things, a sample transcript of an instant messaging conversation between a victim and a con artist.

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On Gawker, Neetzan Zimmerman pounced, calling the recommendations “asinine” because they wouldn’t have come in handy in Manti Te’o’s case (assuming that Te’o was a victim, not a perpetrator). For one thing, Zimmerman says, Te’o didn’t give money to “Lennay Kekua.” On Gawker’s sister site Jezebel, Katie Halper echoed Zimmerman’s disdain, asking, “This is a little ridiculous, right? I mean, this is the State Department we're talking about here. Don't they have more important things to do with their time?”

But those critiques are unfair. While the State Department surely has plenty on its plate, putting together such a list probably didn’t exactly deplete its resources enough to cause deficiencies elsewhere. Furthermore, the purpose of the USA.gov blog post isn’t to somehow go back in time and save poor little Te’o, nor to scold him retroactively. It was published to take advantage of the news cycle, to capture a little of the overwhelming attention currently being paid to “catfishing” and other dating scams. The U.S. government warns people about all kinds of swindles—like appeals for help that seem to come from a friend or relative stranded in another country, fake international lotteries, shady online shopping outfits, cons involving the diversity visa program, and more. And there is good reason for warnings about fake Internet love: In 2011, an American man (who happened to be a former write-in candidate in the 2010 Arizona governor’s race) ended up penniless in Ukraine after flying there to meet his fake online love. Some people lose thousands of dollars to overseas Internet hustlers (and domestic ones, of course). In a particularly brutal case, an American man was allegedly drugged, robbed, and murdered by the Brazilian “fiancee” he met online and her real boyfriend.

Maybe the tips wouldn’t have helped the American stuck in Ukraine or the one killed in Brazil. Maybe the advice is essentially common sense. But when it comes to love—especially online—common sense can evaporate pretty quickly. It would be nice to think that everyone approached by an online scammer would notice the warning signs himself, but overestimating the public’s rationality is never a good idea.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

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