Safety concerns emerge following local “catfishing” incidents

Various university offices have received multiple reports from Tufts students who were “approached by non-Tufts affiliates falsely representing themselves either in person and/or through social media dating sites as Tufts students,” according to a Feb. 9 email to Tufts students. This phenomenon of online misrepresentation is also known as “catfishing.”

The email was co-authored by Dean of Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon, Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO) Director Jill Zellmer and Tufts University Police Department (TUPD) Chief of Police Kevin Maguire.

“Since there has been an increase of these types of reports, we want to raise campus awareness of this practice and encourage all students to be vigilant and stay aware as you meet people in person and online,” the email read. “As you may know, it is relatively easy to mislead others online so we urge you to be especially careful.”

According to Alexandra Donovan, Tufts’ Sexual Misconduct Prevention specialist, student reports of catfishing started coming in early this winter about incidents that took place on Facebook, Twitter, Tinder and Grindr, among other social media platforms.

In an email to the Daily, Maguire defined catfishing as “the phenomenon of Internet scammers who fabricate online identities and entire social circles to trick people into what are usually romantic relationships or thefts of money.”

Donovan said while she is unable to reveal the number of reported incidents, the problem was significant enough to warrant an email alert.

“It rises to the level of an email only when there’s a patten of behavior,” Donovan said. “Students have a feeling of safety on campus and this was something that was interfering with that.”

According to McMahon, there was one report of a student misrepresenting themselves as a Tufts student in person rather than online, although the incidents happened “more online than not.”

Maguire said that while only one incident of catfishing was reported directly to TUPD, the incidents may have criminal implications.

“Many people on the Internet don’t have your best interests in mind, and some are criminals,” he said.

Donovan said the email alert was sent out not because catfishing on campus is a new occurence, but because of the new concern that people are pretending to attend Tufts in order to lower the guard of actual students. McMahon said a similar email was sent to Tufts’ Boston and Grafton campuses, where many of the university’s graduate schools are located.

“We’ve gotten other complaints about catfishing, but not claiming to be Tufts students,” Donovan said. “That particular piece is what was new to us and what we were hearing more of, and because of that particular characteristic it seems like students were much more willing to engage with that person than with someone who they knew was outside the community.”

While McMahon said she could not comment on the scope of the problem, she said that an alert message could be warranted by “even a small pattern of two or three instances.” She also said that a single incident would not likely result in a community-wide email, but would prompt a university investigation and support for the victim.

According to McMahon, investigation into specific incidents of catfishing began immediately after receiving the reports. 

“[Getting the] message out to the community is not the only thing we do,” she said. “If we have a concern great enough that we would send a message out, we would also be working really hard to investigate into stuff — looking for individuals, trying to get more information, trying to get witnesses.”

Donovan addressed an anonymous post on the social media platform Yik Yak, which was published shortly after the e-mail alert was sent out, that read, “I feel like there was a tone in that e-mail that suggested we shouldn’t talk to non-Tufts students.” Donovan said that this was not the intent of the alert.

“I don’t care if you’re hanging out with people from other schools — you’re in Boston. There’s a million other schools here, that has nothing to do with it,” she said. “The point is that this is someone with ill-intent who is using this medium to get to students for ill-intent, not just that someone is trying to pretend to be someone else.”

On Feb. 23, an email co-authored again by McMahon, Zellmer and Maguire was sent to the university community regarding “recent concerning incidents on or near campus that may be linked to spiked or drugged drinks.” These two patterns of predatory behavior in the community are concerning but not necessarily connected, McMahon said.

If we had concerns that the catfishing and the drink spiking were connected, we would probably alert people to that,” she said.

Hannah Shevrin, treasurer of Action for Sexual Assault Prevention at Tufts (ASAP), said that the catfishing email did not outline practical solutions to the problem and seemed to take a neutral stance on the complicity of the victims of catfishing.

“The email doesn’t seem to outwardly blame victims, but that precautionary wording is similar to ‘use the buddy system to help prevent drink spiking’ instead of ‘stop spiking drinks’,” Shevrin, a sophomore, said. “It just doesn’t feel that productive to me.”

ASAP posted a statement on its Facebook page in response to the email alert concerning spiked drinks. In its statement, the group condemned the university for being “too hesitant, afraid or ignorant to support survivors.”

ASAP will take action to directly confront the authors of this email for perpetuating rape culture,” the post read. “Good intentions are not enough. We will work with the administration to make sure that this situation is rectified and does not happen again in the future.”

McMahon said the authors of the catfishing email intended the message to be understanding of student experiences.

“We’re trying to tell students about these harmful patterns while being supportive of their experiences and social lives,” she said.

The drink spiking email follows a series of other alerts that have been emailed to the Tufts community this semester, including the catfishing alert, a Norovirus safety alert sent on Feb. 11 and a severe cold weather warning also sent on Feb. 11. According to McMahon, this has amounted to more alert emails than all of last semester, and the Office of Student Affairs only sends out alerts when it deems an issue to be an area of serious concern.

“I’m not sure that we had the same kind of patterns last semester,” she said. “We wouldn’t send one [email] just because we recently sent another message, but we also try not to oversend.”

Editor’s note: If you are a victim of cat fishing or drink-spiking, and would like to comment on your personal experiences, please reach out to tuftsdailynews@gmail.com. 

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