SALT LAKE CITY — Ever wonder what it would be like to be the woman in the photos that notoriously captured the attention and interest of Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te'o in a "catfishing" scam?
I — a multi-media reporter who feels like he has a handle on most things online — got an unexpected taste, thanks to a scammer who stole my very own Facebook photos and created fake social media accounts used to dupe at least one woman halfway around the world.
It started Saturday night. A woman I had recently accepted as a friend on Facebook sent me a private message I would never forget.
"I got to know you from someone at tagged and Facebook who pretended to be you," the message read. "He posted many of your pictures at his profile under the name of Mr. Ralph Brown both at tagged and Facebook. He tried to scam me, but I managed to find the real person in the pictures and that is you, Mr. Andrew Adams."
My jaw dropped.
Over a lengthy email exchange with the woman named Julia from Malaysia — she requested that some identifying information about her withheld because of the embarrassment the ordeal has caused — I learned that she met this man in January, and by earlier this month he said he wanted to meet up with her in her own country.
"He seemed very genuine," recalled Julia in a phone interview Monday. "I started to doubt him when he wanted to come and visit me because it was too early."
The relationship, she told me, ultimately boiled down to that all-too-familiar plea for money. The man using my photos while claiming to be Ralph Brown of Manchester, United Kingdom, allegedly got caught at an airport.
Julia said she received a call from a supposed immigration agent who told her, for various reasons, Brown could not continue on to see her unless she sent a significant amount of money.
By that time, Julia said she was fed up and turned to a friend to figure out to whom the pictures really belonged. After all, she said, the man in the photos — me — looked a lot younger than 52. That was the age Brown claimed.
"You look so young in the pics so I couldn't believe it," she said in one of her email messages.
The friend instructed Julia to do a reverse image search through Google Images. Though the feature has been around for a while, I didn't know it was an option — and neither did several of my relatively tech-savvy colleagues in the newsroom.
"I made it my responsibility to at least warn you that someone is using your photos illegally," Julia wrote.
As tech experts point out and as I learned, social media sites are quick to respond to claims of fraud. The morning after I reported the fake Ralph Brown account to Facebook, it had vanished.
Tagged, the social media network at www.hi5.com, requested some additional information that I was who I claimed to be, and an administrator said the site would remedy the problem there with that fake Ralph Brown profile.
"It's a common tactic. I've seen it a few other times in other identity theft cases," said XMission founder and president Pete Ashdown, also a highly-regarded tech guru.
Ashdown said there is little recourse for victims of this kind of fraud unless the scammers end up getting caught.
He did like the idea of reverse image searching people when getting to know them online.
"That's a good way to validate the trust you have with somebody on the Internet and make sure they are who they say they are," Ashdown said.
Ashdown said Google Images and tineye.com are two sites that use image recognition software to compare public photos online.
KSL social media director Natalie Wardel said the Google Image process is very easy: simply save a suspected photo to the desktop and upload it to the search after clicking on the camera icon — or paste in a photo URL — and click the search icon.
A quick search involving my bio photo from ksl.com turned up multiple listings.
"If it's a Facebook picture that's set to friends-only it's not going to show up, but if it's a blog photo or something like that it will show up," Wardel said.
Julia told me she hoped her story would help to caution others looking to meet a special someone online, and she warned that others whose pictures were stolen might not be so lucky as to get a call from around the world.
"Anything can happen," she wrote. "It is really a scary world."