By Ernie Palladino
» More Ernie Palladino Columns

The sad, perplexing and mysterious case surrounding Manti Te’o and his not-so-real lady friend offers us all yet another cautionary tale regarding the Internet.

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Te’o, of course, is Notre Dame’s great linebacker who, as revealed or not revealed Wednesday, fell victim or didn’t fall victim to a cruel internet hoax involving a girlfriend he met or didn’t meet who died or didn’t die of leukemia.

Get it? Got it. Moving on.

Officials are calling the affair an elaborate scam perpetrated on a trusting individual. But if that is the case — and that’s in question — then there is a very basic lesson to be learned from all this.

Don’t trust the Internet.

That’s advice any parent might give to an offspring who has just come to computer-using age, of course. But in an age where hundreds of fat, balding guys represent themselves as a poor man’s Robert Pattinson on online dating services, and thousands portend to be exiled Nigerian princes in need of $10,000, is it really that hard to believe a football player could be taken in by a pretty picture and a disembodied voice over the phone?

When they say it’s the Wild West out there in cyberspace — do the computer geeks still use that term? — they’re not kidding. Anybody can be taken in at any time. We all need to use caution, especially when attempting to connect emotionally.

The problem with the Te’o story is that no one really knows if the linebacker was played, or if Te’o was in on the deal. It was certainly a heart-tugging story — Te’o losing both his grandmother and his girlfriend within hours of each other. Made for a lot of nice TV pieces, though one wonders whether any of it had much to do with his final runner-up placement in the Heisman Trophy race. A player needs production for that, and Te’o did that in surplus if you don’t count the Irish’s pratfall against Alabama.

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Certainly if further investigation reveals Te’o had helped plan things, he’ll potentially cost himself a lot of money in the upcoming draft, unless there’s a GM out there who considers the affair a savvy public relations move.

Either way, he’ll be answering plenty of questions from people whose job it is to project a player’s mental stability, as well as football acuity. In other words, better that he should have missed a handful of meetings because he partied too hard the night before than get caught up in a scam for which only the most lonely and gullible would fall.

There is a lot to be sorted out here. Former Arizona fullback Reagan Mauia says no, Lennay Kekua is really real, that he met her at an NFL outreach function in American Samoa. And he knew her family.

Lots of holes here, many of which Te’o must fill with answers.

The only reality here, it seems, is that once again we are reminded of the dangers of the Internet. If Te’o was somehow involved in creating this scam, it proves the level of deception that is possible when used for the wrong purposes. If Te’o was indeed gullible and pulled in, it proves once again how easily trust is violated out there in the ether.

Either way, it’s all bad.

Funny, this stuff never happened with paper and a typewriter.

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Your thoughts on the Te’o saga? Sound off in the comments…