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Crying Wolf: Fabricated Crimes

When people stage a crime against themselves, is it just a call for attention?

Once feared kidnapped—or worse—Audrey Seiler, a
University of Wisconsin honors student, was found in the spring of 2004, curled up
near a marsh in Madison. She told police she'd been held captive at
knifepoint for four days. Melissa McGee, from Auburn, Washington,
reported she had been raped in a park in 2003 while her 5-year-old
daughter played nearby. That same year a 16-year-old New York girl said a
man with a swastika tattoo punched her in the face after she refused to
get into his car.

All three women have since admitted their stories were fabricated.
The Seiler and McGee cases have another common thread: Both seemed to be
cries for attention targeted at specific people. Seiler allegedly sought
her disinterested boyfriend's eye, while McGee reportedly hoped her
parents would pay her rent.

Such stories aren't as rare as one might think. Although few
match the media frenzy generated by the Seiler case, newspapers are
sprinkled with local stories of crime fakery. Many hoaxes are discovered,
but it's likely that others are not.

Psychologists have dubbed the phenomenon The Boy Who Cried Wolf
Effect, named after Aesop's fable about a shepherd who fakes wolf
attacks. In real life, experts say, these "shepherds," mostly
women, aren't acting out of boredom. These damsels in distress are
very often motivated by an intense desire for attention and may feel
unfairly neglected by those close to them, often romantic partners.
Others are simply crying out to a world they feel ignores them.

People who fake crimes are transforming feelings of invisibility
into a fantasy that they may come to believe is reality, says Bonnie
Jacobson, a psychologist and director of the New York Institute for
Psychological Change in New York City. She says a "hoaxer"
wins attention by playing the passive victim, similar to a person with
Munchausen syndrome, who fakes an illness to get the attention of doctors
or loved ones. But that doesn't mean that people who perpetrate
large-scale deceptions are necessarily in need of psychiatric help, says
Maureen O'Sullivan, a University of San Francisco psychology
professor who studies how people lie.

They simply may be good actors, which is in part why we believe
them. In one study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology
, O'Sullivan found people will more readily believe even
outrageous lies when the deceiver is familiar, outgoing and outwardly
happy. That's because we tend to "listen" to their
personality more than the content of their story. Hoaxes often spin out
of control, O'Sullivan warns, when the liar decides to harm herself
to make the hoax appear more convincing.

Among crime hoaxes, there's a subset of tricksters who
concoct crimes for political causes, says Gregg O. McCrary, a retired FBI
agent who profiles criminals as director of Behavioral Criminology
International, a consultancy in Fredericksburg, Virginia. This kind of
hoaxer is just as likely to be a man as a woman. A case occurred
in November 2003 when Jaime Alexander Saide, a Northwestern University
student in Evanston, Illinois, published a column about his Mexican
heritage in the campus newspaper after he claimed to be the target of two
hate crimes. Saide later confessed to filing false reports to bring
attention to campus race relations.

While most reported hate crimes are real, hoaxes often occur on
college campuses around the same time as antiracism forums, says Laird
Wilcox, who's book, Crying Wolf, includes
more than 320 staged hate crimes that he's tracked in the U.S.
since 1994. Consider the case of Kerri Dunn, a social psychology
professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, who
police suspect may have slashed her own car's tires, smashed its
windshield and spray-painted it with racial slurs just hours before
speaking at a campus forum against hate crimes last spring. Two
eyewitnesses identified her as the culprit shortly after hundreds of
students marched to protest the crime. Dunn denies that she staged the

Another big tip-off is when an alleged victim calls the press
before calling the police. "These people are not knowledgeable
about what a typical crime looks like," McCrary says.
"You'll try to find support for their allegations and find
the facts don't match up."

Seiler, the supposed Wisconsin abductee, was exposed when police
uncovered a store surveillance video that captured her purchasing rope,
cold medication and a knife—all items that she claimed were used to
hold her captive. Detectives soon discovered that only a month before,
the 20-year-old had claimed she was attacked and knocked unconscious near
her apartment.

Investigating hoaxes is costly. Seiler's case sparked a
manhunt involving 150 officers, police dogs and a helicopter. It cost
more than $96,000. Such actions can carry a sentence of 18 months in jail and a $20,000 fine for
lying to police. According to police interviews, she says: "I set
everything up. I'm just so messed up. I'm