Rhodri Marsden: How can I be sure who I’m chatting to online?

Cyberclinic
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The Independent Tech

The internet has made the world seem smaller, connecting us with friends across vast distances and allowing us to buy cheap Viagra from self-styled chemists in remote corners of India. But online chatrooms reveal a more fractured internet community, where thousands of moderately lonely people seek out anonymous or pseudonymous conversation in order to relieve the crushing boredom.

It’s a typically human weakness, but one that leaves participants susceptible to being duped. We might all consider ourselves to be savvy social creatures and great judges of character, but that judgement is, for some reason, shattered by flirtatious messages that make us feel marginally more attractive.

Fidel Castro’s 40-year old son – presumably not a man short of opportunities to meet new people – found himself in the embarrassing position this week of having his unsophisticated internet sweet-nothings reprinted in newspapers across the globe; the person he thought was “gorgeous” 27-year-old Columbian sports journalist Claudia Valencia was actually a |46-year-old bloke called Luis Dominguez – someone to whom Castro probably wouldn’t have sent intimate photos or expressed a wish to kiss passionately under normal circumstances.

Castro’s mates are unlikely to let him forget this episode for a while, but it’s a comparatively benign|example of what’s known as social engineering; many people become strangely willing to part with passwords, bank details and even hard cash after a bit of affectionate, but badly spelled, online flattery. You might think that only idiots would fall for such a thing, but it continues to work brilliantly – and cybercriminals have the overwrought chat-up lines and bulging bank accounts to prove it.

To which you might say, well, steer clear of online chatrooms. But many people enjoy anonymously reinventing themselves online, and are perfectly aware that most people aren’t who they say they are.

One often-observed chatroom syndrome illustrates this perfectly: men, looking for sexually-charged chat with women but all too aware that women are unlikely to reciprocate, pose as women who only tolerate sexually-charged chat with other women. This results in chatrooms populated entirely by heterosexual men with pseudonyms like emma82 or hotchick28 getting a thrill out of flirting with each other. So maybe it’s best for all of us to make up an online identity and hide behind it. After all, if Antonio Castro had pretended to be a woman, too, he wouldn’t currently have his face splashed across the world’s media.

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