Chatting with a new Valentine over coffee: old school. Dealing with awkward first-date giggles at an Applebee's: What is this, 1998? These days, many of us are getting romantic through virtual winks and private messages, or by simply perusing a prospective match's age, sex, location, weight, height, self summary, favorite movies, and leisure activities through his or her dating profile. Online dating has become so popular that it was how nearly 25 million people searched for love in just one month of 2011, according to a study in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest.
But if the nonstop drama of Manti Te'o and the tales of online exes-turned-murders have taught us anything, it's that you've got to be safe when dating online. Here's how:
Don't post contact information. "You need to own your online presence," says Michael Kaiser, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance. "Empower yourself to control what you share online." While engaging in multiple virtual platforms can make you feel like Master of the Internet, it can also leave you vulnerable. "There's a difference between being cyber savvy and cyber secure," Kaiser says.
Even if you've omitted your phone number, address, and even your personal email address in your dating profile, could it be found on another social media account? Up your security settings across the board, and be aware of apps like Foursquare and Instagram that allow you to post your specific location. If someone is impressed with your dating profile, searches your name on Facebook to find your number, and then sees that you checked into a specific pizza place five minutes ago, your virtual security walls have crumbled.
Watch for red flags. Start with the profile picture. Dazzled by your virtual beau's perfect teeth and glistening eyes? And don't even get us started on that bathing suit photo. Hate to burst your bubble, but he may be too good to be true. It's not uncommon for folks to snatch photos of models, celebrities, or just regular people and post them as their own. If you're suspicious, try a reverse image search via Google Images to see if the photos are posted elsewhere. "Even if they're not trying to deceive and are maybe just trying to be funny, you got to think: For whatever reason, that person is not being honest about themselves," says Garth Bruen, security fellow of the Digital Citizens Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition that promotes Internet safety.
If you verify the picture and get to talking, does he ask for money? Is he living or traveling abroad and asking you to send along a package to a friend in the states? If so, you're likely being prepped for a scam. And while these clues may seem obvious, is it that unusual to do a favor for someone you like? In those early stages of romance, "you want to be accommodating and pleasing to the other person," says Bruen. "You want to give of yourself with the expectation that you're going to get something back."
[See How to Make Love Last]
Match.com lists other signs to watch out for, including excessive grammar and spelling errors, talks of "destiny" and "fate," and asking for your address so he can send you flowers or gifts.
Play detective. To gauge their honesty, "ask them a question, and then later ask them the same question in a different way," says Bruen, who suggests asking where the person went to high school. Similarly, be keen to stories that don't quite add up, like if she has one job today and another job a week from now. You're looking for a "string of integrity," Kaiser says, which is easier to feel out when you're sharing dinner in person rather than exchanging emails.
You can always use Google to see what you can find out about this person, and you can even get a background check through a private investigator or various online services. But Kaiser warns that a clean background check could lead to a false sense of security. "Background checks only show stuff that they had been caught for," he says. "If someone is a serial stalker but has never been caught or arrested, a background check won't tell you that."
Set your expectations. What do you want to get out of all this? Are you looking to meet someone and build a serious relationship—even get married? More interested in a casual fling? Think about what you expect from online dating, and keep that in mind as you engage with possible matches, Bruen suggests. If you want something serious but your beau continually keeps his distance and avoids meeting up, that's a problem. "In some cases, that person is trying to prep you for a scam," Bruen says. "In other cases, it's just an unrealistic, insecure person who is never going to commit to you."
Trust your intuition. At the end of the day, online dating isn't that different from offline dating. There are creeps and spammers both on the Web and in real life, and there are good guys, too, Kaiser says. If something feels off, like the pacing, vibe, or language—it probably is. And if you feel like you're in trouble, you probably are. "If they're getting harassing texts, emails, or feel like someone is following them, they should seek help as soon as possible," Kaiser says. Most dating sites have some sort of "report abuse" function, which folks should definitely use if they feel they need to. Beyond that, remember that "stalking is serious and illegal in all 50 states and the District of Columbia," he says, so don't hesitate to contact the police.
Meet up safely. If you think you've found a good egg and the two of you want to meet up—great. Choose a public place and drive yourself, or plan your own transportation. Don't get stuck in a situation where you're relying on a virtual stranger to get you home. Tell friends where you're going and when you expect to be home, and even consider bringing someone along. A buddy could, say, wait at the bar while you start your date and wait for your signal before leaving. "There's no shame in protecting yourself, and no one should be embarrassed," Kaiser says. "If the date is a good, caring person, he'll say, 'Hey, smart for you.'"