By John Breyault, Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications and Fraud
The bizarre tale of Manti Te’o’s relationship with a fictitious person going by the name of “Lennay Kekua,” has captivated more than just the sports world over the past 24 hours. While many of the details of the episode remain unclear, Te’o’s story bears many of the hallmarks of the romance/friendship scam complaints that NCL’s Fraud Center receives on a regular basis. This type of fraud is especially attractive to scammers for one simple reason: it pays. In 2011, victims of these scams reported losing an average of $5,500, making romance/friendship scams the single most costly type of scam reported to NCL. These types of scams were the 7th most-reported scam to NCL in 2011.
Manti Te’o’s story bears many of the hallmarks of romance/friendship scams reported to NCL, including:
- The relationship is exclusively virtual – It has been reported that Te’o never met “Lennay Kekua” in person. Most of their interactions were apparently over the Internet or via telephone calls. Numerous in-person meetings were reportedly arranged, but “Kekua” never arrived.
- Use of others’ photos to gain trust – Reportedly, the perpetrator of the scam against Te’o used photos pulled from another person’s Facebook and Instagram accounts. This is a common tactic used by romance/friendship scammers to make their online persona more believable and thereby gain the victim’s trust.
- “Tragic” event – “Kekua” told Te’o that she had been in serious car accident and then discovered that she had contracted leukemia. In the complaints that NCL receives about romance/friendship scams, it is not unusual that a supposedly “tragic” event is reported as an excuse to ask for money from the victim (often for fictitious “hospital bills”).
The goal of most fraudsters in romance/friendship scams is to gain the trust of their mark and eventually persuade them to send money. It is unknown whether Te’o ever sent money to the fictitious “Lennay Kekua.” However, it seems plausible that a scammer who discovered that their mark was highly-touted NFL prospect would continue to string the victim along even if the scammer was not getting paid immediately.
Much of the sad story of Manti Te’o and “Lennay Kekua” remains to be told. More details are sure to emerge in the coming days and weeks. What this episode does illustrate is that no one, not even star football players, is immune to being taken in by skilled scammers.
Hopefully, the publicity this story generates will give other victims of these types of scams the courage to report these scams. Unfortunately, fraud is notoriously underreported, and in the case of romance/friendship scams likely even more so. Victims are understandably embarrassed and often go to great lengths to avoid facing the reality of the crime. Only by reporting the fraud can the criminal perpetrating these be brought to justice. To report a romance/friendship scam or another other instance of fraud, use NCL’s secure online complaint form. Complaints received by NCL are shared with our network of more than 90 federal, state, local and international law enforcement and consumer protection partners.