(RNN) - Manti Te'o was the likely victim of a common internet scam that has bilked thousands of victims out of millions of dollars, said the owner of romancescams.org, a website that offers counseling, education and healing for victims of the scams. And like victims of similar hoaxes, he has been humiliated and ridiculed.
Barbara Sluppick, of Branson, MO, heads a handful of volunteers who run the bare-bones website that started as a Yahoo Group in 2005 and now claims more than 19,000 members. The organization has reported more than 5,500 scammers who cheated more than 1,200 people out of more than $15 million.
Sluppick's gut feeling is that Te'o was the victim of what she calls "a west African scam," and that he is in no way involved in the deception.
"Anybody who said he plotted this, who says he was in on the hoax, they have no clue," she said. "I deal with this every day. As much as it was a scam, it was very, very real to Manti Te'o. This was as real to him as if he met her face-to-face and went on a date with her every Saturday night."
Te'o told the heartbreaking tale of how he was inspired by girlfriend Lennay Kekua, the beautiful 22-year-old Stanford graduate who died of cancer. The story attracted national attention during Notre Dame's football season and was reported at face value by multiple national publications. When Deadspin.com broke the story on Jan. 16 that Kekua never existed, people everywhere shook their heads in disbelief. In short order, Te'o's character, intelligence, honesty and personal life were called to question.
Sluppick wasn't surprised. She's heard variants of the same story for years.
"From all I've heard, him being madly in love but never meeting her, the relationship being fraught with disasters, it has all the elements of a classic romance scam," she said. "Nobody is saying whether money was sent to her, but that's usually another key element."
Usually, the perpetrators are men, she said. Deadspin and other publications have drawn a link between Te'o and another young man, Ronaiah Tuisosopo, the possible creator of the hoax. In an interview with ESPN's Jermy Schapp, Te'o said Tuisosopo had apologized to him for being the perpetrator.
Te'o, who maintains he was not complicit in the deceit to attract publicity, said that he spoke by phone to a woman he believed to be Kekua. Female accomplices are a common component of the deception, Sluppick said.
"If a woman makes phone calls to the victim it's probably the wife or girlfriend of the scammer," she said. And photos are commonly faked - or as Deadspin reported, are photos of a third party who has no idea their images are being used.
When Sluppick and her staff first saw the photo of the woman who was supposed to be Kekua, Sluppick aid she thought it was Raven Riley, a porn star who has a website that scammers oftenuse as a source to copy photos or video they use to deceive their victims.
Sluppick said the parts of the story that are so unbelievable to the general public are the sort of things she hears every day. Te'o's relationship with the fictional girl supposedly began in 2009 and once the hoax was exposed, he finally admitted he had never seen her in person.
"Can it go on for a long time? Yes. Do [the victims] want to meet the person? Yes." But something always happens when meetings are scheduled so that the lovers never connect. Often the scammer claims some catastrophe prevented them from making the appointment and asks for more money.
According to published reports, Te'o's father, Brian Te'o said that Kekua had visited his son in Hawaii. Clearly this never happened. But it's not unusual that family members would be misled, Sluppick said. She speculated that Manti Te'o told his father and others that he had actually met Kekua in person. Te'o admitted as much to Schaap.
"It's a loving father," she said. "He wants to believe his son. If money was sent to her, it probably came from his father. The scammers always ask, ‘Can you borrow the money? Can you get it from your family?' Will a dad fork over money for the love of your life if you tell them the truth, that it's somebody you met online and have never seen?'"
Sluppick recounted an almost identical story of a woman who lied to her mother about a face-to-face meeting with a man whose photograph turned out to be that of a male model often used by scammers.
The stories of Te'o staying on the phone with Kekua all night during her alleged illness is a common ploy, she said. Scammers will keep victims awake at all hours, so they are sleep-deprived and can't make clear-headed decision. Kekua's narrative involved being in a serious car crash and then discovering she had leukemia. Creating emotional distress through a series of disasters that require the victim's help are hallmarks of the scams.
"They keep you isolated," Sluppick said. "And college football players are pretty isolated anyway. Scammers are experts in psychology, they know how to work their victims."
It's hard to finally accept that you've been scammed, Sluppick said, and harder still to come forward, as Te'o has been forced to do. The ridicule that Te'o has faced since the story broke is an example of why people are reluctant to report that they've been victims of these scams, she said.
Notre Dame officials said Te'o got a call from the woman he had thought was Kekua on Dec. 6, saying she was not dead after all. The latest bizarre twist to the story came Jan 18, when the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported that she told Te'o she faked her death to avoid drug dealers. That's when he finally started to doubt, but not before he asked for a photo of her to prove she was still alive. And it was not until Dec. 26,almost three weeks later, that he finally went to his coaches at Notre Dame and told them the whole story.
The truth has done anything but set him free.
"Now, Te'o has all these people on his butt, accusing him of this and that. He starts to understand that he's going to look ridiculous … And he's probably thinking ‘the truth doesn't make me look too good, either.'"
She said the ploy to kill off Kekua was unusual, but "nothing surprises me with a romance scam," she said. The decision to say she had died was probably because Te'o was putting on a lot of pressure to see her (she was allegedly dying of cancer and had a short time to live). If money was changing hands, that had probably dried up, Sluppick said.
That the victim in this case is a famous athlete exposes another myth about scam victims, Sluppick said.
"People think it's middle-aged women who can't get a date, or lonely old men," she said. "Nothing could be further from the truth. Victims are any age, straight, gay, transgendered. Some are disabled, some are doctors, lawyers, CEOs of companies. All you need is to have an email address and a willingness to be in a relationship to fall victim to this kind of scam," she said.
After an initial prepared release, Te'o has not spoken out on the issue. A press conference hinted at by Notre Dame officials has not materializes.
Sluppick said she hopes he will come forward. It will be difficult, but could be a first step toward repairing his image and setting the record straight.
"Because it is so public, it can call attention to this issue," she said. The same thing has happened to many other people, she said. Knowledge and education about the scam could help clear Te'o's name and might help call attention to other victims of the same crime.
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