Many people got a new meaning to the word "catfish" upon hearing of the hoax involving Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o.

Te'o allegedly had a girlfriend who died within hours of his grandmother's death. The girlfriend's story became part of his Heisman campaign. Te'o spoke of her repeatedly. Then it was revealed that the girlfriend never existed.

Te'o has admitted that he never met the girl; that he thought she existed on the internet.

There were all kinds of jokes about Te'o and the make believe girl friend. Everybody seemed quick to condemn and ridicule the football star.

What happened was: he was a "catfish" victim.

"Catfish" is a TV show involving virtual identities. Sometimes, as with the Te'o incidence, things go out of control and people get hurt. Doesn't this often happen with pranks?

Unfortunately, the catfish nonsense goes beyond Te'o.

Stars and Stripes, a military newspaper, reports that often soldiers are victims of catfishing.

It reports that the Army's Criminal Investigative Command has been warning soldiers and others of similar cons since at least 2009.

A news release in 2009 warned that criminals were posing as members of the army on popular social networking and dating sites "in an attempt to lure unsuspecting persons into revealing personal, banking, or financial information."

In the case of Te'o, the catfishing was a prank by a friend and apparently not a bid for financial gain by the perpetrator.

The term 'catfish' originates from a 2010 documentary in which a young man built a romantic relationship with a woman he met on Facebook only to find out she was not who she said she was.

Dr. Phil writes on his Web site, "With more than 40 million men and women online looking for love, there are bound to be some scam artists out there. A 'catfish' is a person who creates a false online identity in the hopes of luring people into romantic relationships.

It's unfortunate that so many people use things like the internet for cheap kicks.

Te'o got hurt by the prank.

Military members get hurt.

One of the networks said often lawyers, doctors, and other well-educated people are often duped by catfishing.

Instead of calling it a "catfish," maybe it should be called a "sucker" scheme.

By RON GOWER

rgower@tnonline.com