Awhile back, I was planning to go home to Hawaii for the holidays. The owner of one of my mailing lists lived in Hawaii, and I wanted to get together with him while I was there. He said he was a doctor, so I decided to find out what hospital he worked at, to see if it was convenient to where I would be staying. I didn't want to admit to him that I didn't remember which hospital he worked at, so I looked up his e-mail address, figuring it might be connected to his work. It sounded like it might be a professional domain, but it wasn't. Instead, it resolved to MailCity (a free e-mail provider, like Hotmail). Okay, fine. I went to the AMA website, which lists every doctor in the U.S., whether they are members of the AMA or not. But there was no doctor by his name licensed to practice in Hawaii. In fact, according to Google there was no one with his last name at all, anywhere in the world.
Okay, maybe he wasn't using his real name to post online. That's not unusual. But then he posted a photo of himself to the list. And it looked so fake. It looked like a yearbook photo, scanned in, with the eyes and hair visibly Photoshopped to match his description. And it was very awkwardly cropped - probably to disguise the fact that it was a photo of a boy in an ordinary white shirt, rather than a picture of a doctor in a white coat. And then I remembered that his "friend," a person on the list who claimed to know him in real life, was a digital artist.
I started to think back. A lot of the things this person had said in the past struck me as being, well, unlikely. He claimed to be half Japanese and half German, yet had blue-green eyes and jet-black hair. That is extremely improbable. White/Asian marriages are common in Hawaii, and the kids invariably have brown eyes and brown hair. It's close to impossible for someone who is half-Japanese to have blue eyes. Dark eyes are dominant, and most Japanese have no recessive genes for blue eyes, as dark-eyed Caucasians might.
Then there was his extreme defensiveness, if he thought anyone was questioning his expertise. He'd say things like "I know better than you, I'm a doctor." That struck a wrong note, because, in my experience, people who really do have credentials don't feel the need to flaunt them that way. The more you learn, the more you realize how little you really know.
Most tellingly, there was the fact that his life was so dramatic. That's a key sign of what some have dubbed "Munchausen by Internet." His mother died of cancer when he was a child. His father abused him. He was raped in his apartment, and then again, in the parking lot of the hospital where he supposedly worked. He threatened to kill himself if he didn't pass his exams. His cousin was hit by a car - on his birthday. Despite the fact that a few days before Christmas the cousin was on death's door, he recovered enough that he was home by Christmas. His friend donated bone marrow to two people (when I've been in the database for ten years, and haven't been called once). He saved a Russian mail-order bride from a botched abortion. And much more. Taken all together, it just didn't seem likely.
At this point, you're probably thinking I'm a complete idiot for not catching on earlier. Especially since I've run into this kind of faker before. But in fandom, there's a tendency to trust. To take people at face value. It's different if you're selling on eBay, or vetting potential dates on Match.com. Then, you're cautious, because you know people are trying to get something from you. But a Munchausen's sufferer wants only your attention, so it often doesn't occur to you to be suspicious. I realized that some of the things the "doctor" was saying were improbable, but I thought he was just exaggerating. It didn't occur to me that it was all completely made up.
One of the reasons the ruse was so successful was the clever use of sock puppets. He seemed to have a lot of real-life friends, who surely would have said something if he wasn't on the up-and-up. They posted from different e-mail addresses, and seemed to have different styles. (One was supposedly Japanese, and used broken English.)
But after that obviously faked photo was posted, I decided to check the headers. Though his female friend and male cousin had different e-mail addresses and supposedly lived in different countries, their posts originated from the same source. They were, I was sure, the same person. Now I knew why, during online chats, one of them would always have to leave just before another of them arrived.
So who was real? The doctor, the friend, or the cousin? The list had an official web site and domain name, so I looked up who the official owner was. It was the friend. The doctor and cousin were the sock-puppets. I had been talking to fictional characters for the past three years.
It seemed so bizarre I could hardly credit it. And yet, there was no other explanation. It was an extreme case of Munchausen syndrome: a psychological problem where people pretend to be ill (or claim their children or friends are ill) in order to garner sympathy and attention.
I had run across these Internet fakers several times before, though nothing as long or elaborate as this. When I first got online, I "met" a young woman who claimed to be a vet, and offered me all kinds of advice about my cat and my tropical fish. She got cancer, slowly declined, then died. We wanted to send flowers, and maybe attend the funeral, and got her ISP to contact her family for us. To our shock, her parents said there was no funeral. She wasn't dead, she wasn't even sick. At least not physically. She'd pulled this kind of "pretend death" several times before, and was in therapy, but every time life got stressful, she'd do it again.
And the Internet is the ideal place for a Munchausen sufferer. With the click of a button, you can find out all kinds of information, to help you pose as anyone you want. People don't expect to see you in person or even talk to you except by e-mail, making deception easier. And often, mailing lists, message boards, etc., will give unqualified support to their members.
So what did I do? Nothing, at first. It was weird, but didn't seem all that harmful. In fandom, people often play role-playing games, or post under pseuds. This just seemed like an extreme exaggeration of something that's commonly accepted in fandom. And I didn't want to make trouble on the list. So I didn't say anything to anyone. I tried not to reply to the doctor's and cousin's posts, only to the friend's. I wanted to encourage her to be herself. I thought that might persuade her to give up the lies and the sockpuppets.
Of course, that was futile. She was an amazingly talented person: good at art, writing, technology, language, etc. She could have been a star of fandom if she weren't always pretending to be someone else. But it wasn't enough. It never is, for Munchausen's sufferers. Just as an anorectic can never be thin enough, a Munchausen's sufferer can never get enough attention.
Five months later, I decided I couldn't keep quiet any longer. The "doctor" announced that he had cancer, and was likely to die. That was too much; people were getting really upset, and for no reason. It wasn't right for people to be losing sleep over this drama. He didn't have cancer, and he wasn't dying...because he didn't exist.
I e-mailed the co-moderator of the list with my suspicions. I was very nervous about how she would react, but she agreed with me. She'd suspected the same thing for a long time. She posted a message exposing the deception to the list, and I supported her. We were both kicked off, of course. I also forwarded the warning to a related list. Not everyone there was pleased at the disruption, but I felt it was my duty to warn people. I had previously encouraged people, many of them newbies, to join the first list, not realizing it was an invitation to The Twilight Zone.
For similar reasons, I'm posting the bizarre story here. Munchausen's by Internet is extremely common in fandom - far more common than most people realize. Here are the warning signs (borrowed from Marc Feldman's article):
To these I will add one more:
In my experience, if you suspect someone is faking, others do, too. But often, the only sign they give is not replying to the faker's posts. In this case, I thought I was the only one who suspected. But I found out later that the perpetrator had been in trouble on other lists for fakery, even been kicked off one. Some people had recognized what was going on years before I had, and had left the list in disgust because they got sick of the constant B.S.
I thought long and hard about posting this article. Revealing how I figured out the fakery might actually help Munchausen's sufferers carry out their fraud. But no matter how careful they are, they can't hide the most telling clue: the constant, and constantly escalating, drama. That will always be the giveaway.
Village Voice article on Munchausen By Internet