However you like to do it, dating is a dangerous game. Not talking to strangers might be sound advice to give to kids but as a strategy to stop being single, it has at least one obvious drawback. Unless you want to marry your cousin, finding someone to settle down with will involve making eye contact with total strangers, engaging them in conversation and meeting them one-on-one.
There are two obvious dangers here. The first is that your new friend might appear to be a complete charmer but could actually be a cold-blooded philanderer with a record of heart-breaking. They'll think nothing of leading you on, playing games and trampling over your emotions. That's bad enough and you've probable had enough of people like that already.
The second danger is even worse, even if it is a great deal rarer. The attractive stranger that you meet in the bar could actually be an escaped convict from the local sanatorium. Instead of finding someone who makes you feel safe and secure for the rest of your life, you pick someone up who's going to put your safety at risk and require you to take out a series of court orders and new alarm systems.
Although the chances of meeting someone like this online is extremely small, it is worth making the effort to be cautious. In this chapter, we're going to talk about how to steer clear of this second group and stay safe online.
Anonymity Cuts Both Ways
When you meet someone in a bar, the initial pick-up is as much a safety check as it is a check-out. If you spot someone attractive sitting alone at the table next to yours, before you even give them a look-before you make any kind of contact at all-you observe them for a few minutes to see how they behave with the waiters, by themselves or with people who pass by. If they are rude, arrogant or just downright unpleasant, it doesn't matter how much of a looker they are, you're still going to look right on by. Only if you're sure they're normal, civilized human beings do you try to make eye contact, pluck up the courage to face rejection and make your move.
And once you do make that move, you're always looking out for little signals that tell you that the person you're talking to is less than normal. There are all sorts of clues to help you do that: the way someone dresses, the way they talk and their body language to name but a few-and you notice all of them without even realizing that you're looking for them.
A cowboy hat and a Texas drawl for example, tell you instantly where someone is from and where they stand in the country's cultural divide. Bleached hair and sentences that end with 'dude' tell you much the same. Nervous twitches, roaming hands and peculiar scratching all say something about the person you're sizing up and help you make a decision about whether you should make a date or make an excuse.
Face-to-face, you've got a ton of different signals that tell you huge amounts about the person you're thinking of chatting to.
Online, you've got nothing to go on but what the person puts on their profile and writes in their email.
"Unlike real-life relationships where you have some idea of what a person drives, what they really look like, how they live, etc., online you have none of that," says Lisa Hupman, a veteran cyberdater who set up WildXangel.com, a website that warns other daters about the dangers in online dating. "You give more trust than is actually due because you have no choice."
And the reason you have no choice-or more accurately, little choice-about the level of trust you give is that the main tool that protects you online is the same thing that protects the occasional nutcase who roams the Web: anonymity.
There is no way for two people who exchange emails online to know the real identities of the people they're writing to. The email you receive lands in an inbox located on the site.
The name you choose is one you create and should bear no relation to your real identity.
As long as you don't let your real, full name slip out before you've built up a certain amount of trust, you start an online relationship fully protected by the fact that the person who writes to you has no idea who you are, where you live or how they can get hold of you outside the site.
When you date online, the dating identity that's doing the looking exists only on the Internet. There's a complete barrier between your online self and the real you-and that barrier is your best protection against any wacko you might be unlucky enough to meet online.
If you have the bad luck to meet a loony at a dating site, as long as you've kept your identity a secret, there's no way that they can bother you in real life.
Of course, that works for them too. Because there's no way for you to check the identity of someone you meet online, you've got no idea whether the doctor who sent you an email got his or her degree certificate from Harvard, as they claim, or ordered it from a website in Romania. You've got no idea if they were really working for the Peace Corps for the last two years or spent that time sewing mailbags in a state penitentiary. And you've got no idea whether the person who described themselves as passionate will leave you alone once you tell them you're not interested or hang around outside your front door waiting for you to come home from work.
It would be nice if there were a checklist that you could go through when you meet someone online. If they mentioned 'knives' more than three times in the first email, you could tick a box. If they mentioned that they served multiple sentences for violent crimes, that would lead you to tick another box. If they talked about their friendship with the Unabomber that would strike them out.
But it's not that easy.
The best way to keep yourself safe online is to follow three simple rules: keep your anonymity as long as possible; remember that if something feels wrong, it probably is; and cut them out quick and completely as soon as you smell something fishy.
1. Keeping Your Name (And Everything Else) To Yourself
There's no reason at the beginning of an online relationship for you to say who you are, where you work, where you live, what your telephone number is or any other identifying detail that you might later regret.
When you start exchanging emails, you can chat about your hobbies. You can talk in general about the kind of work you do. You can say that you like walking in Central Park or heading out to Sequoia. But tell someone you've never seen, never met and whose real name you don't know that you live at 123 Killmenow Road, Apt. 103 and it's certainly possible that you'll have reason to regret it when you find yourself looking for a new apartment.
In a later chapter we talk in more detail about what the first couple of emails of an Internet relationship are supposed to do. At this stage though, it's enough to say that what they're not supposed to do is draw out personal information that would allow your new pal to find you offline.
If someone asks for a phone number, you can tell them politely that you'd rather hold onto it for a while. If they ask exactly where you work, you can just say a big law firm in the city or a clothes store in town. If they ask, in their first email, for your address, you can delete their message, add them to your blocked members list and tell the website that this person looks a bit suspicious.
2. If Something Looks Wrong, It Probably Is...
That's because on the Internet, it pays to be suspicious.
The vast majority of the people you meet online will be as honest, direct and truthful as the people you meet offline. It's unlikely that you'll come across many angels who will lay out their entire life histories, warts and all, right at the beginning, but it's also very unlikely that you'll be unfortunate enough to come across any axe-wielding psychopaths or the stereotypical man masquerading as a woman-or vice-versa (most of those seem to have run off with Netscape in the early days of the Internet).
For the most part, you'll find that the vast majority of fibs you encounter on dating sites tend to concern age, weight, income and of course photo, with ten-year-old graduation photos passing as up-to-date snaps.
That's certainly bad enough but it's not a threat and you can decide, when you uncover the real story, whether the truth has been stretched beyond the bounds of forgiveness.
You can also get a feel for when someone's lying online-even if you can't see the way they behave when they're spinning you a story and you can't hear in their voice that not even they believe what they're saying. It's hard to keep a story straight and there are often little inconsistencies the tell you that something isn't quite right.
If someone born in 1974 for example, talks about having been in their current job for twelve years and their previous job for fifteen, then that should set alarm bells ringing. If a potential date who claims on their profile never to have been married mentions a stay with ex-in-laws, that should raise a red flag. And if someone says they don't like spending time with the police that should send out a serious warning.
These are exactly the kind of tell-tale signs that tell you that something isn't quite right. And when you get those signs, it's always a good idea to trust your instincts.
3. Cut Them Out Quick
We've already mentioned that you might come across two different kinds of deception online: the more common truthful economies that exaggerate positive qualities such as youth or wealth at the expense of complete honesty; and the total lies that obscure a character that likes to stalk, harass or otherwise make life miserable for their unfortunate victim.
When you come across the first type-and there's a fair chance that you will come across the first type online, just as you'll come across milder forms offline too-you can decide what you want to do. If you're dealing with just a mild little exaggeration you might be willing to forgive them their trespasses (just you might be hoping that people will forgive you yours).
But if you get the feeling that the person you're dealing with is even close to being on the dangerous side, the best thing to do is cut them out quickly.
Just about all dating sites allow you to block emails from members who are bothering you. Add them to your blocked list and if you've managed to keep your identity details secret, that should be the last you hear from them.
Don't even think twice about it. With millions of people searching for singles online, with such a huge reservoir of people to choose from, there's absolutely no reason for you to take any risks at all on the Internet. The dangers are just too great and the alternatives too many for you to bother with them.
The moment you see even the slightest hint of a red flag waving, cut, run and move on to the next likely prospect. There are far too many fish in the sea for you to waste your time and your safety swimming with the sharks.
Millions of people have used online dating sites without ever coming across the slightest hint of danger, risk or deception. If you do see a flag, it's more likely to be the light pink of a couple of years shaved off a birth date than the throbbing red of a Glenn Close looking for a victim. While it's perfectly possible-and even easy-for someone to misrepresent their qualifications online, it's no less easy for you to protect yourself from any danger and look for someone more honest.
To keep safe online, and to protect yourself from nasty surprises such as lying Lotharios and deceptive divas, you'll need little more than common sense and a sensitive nose for the whiff of deceit.
Merav Knafo is the co-founder of LookBetterOnline.com. LookBetterOnline offers an easy and economical solution to the problem of sub-standard online dating photos. Available in over 6000 cities in the US and Canada, all the photographers they employ are pre-screened, are specially trained and will make you look your best! You get 12 great images that are the perfect size and resolution for your profile - and for no additional charge, their staff will recommend the best photos to use!
Do your photos do you justice? If they aren't working for you, they may be working against you.
For more information and to schedule a photo session that may change your life, visit http://lookbetteronline.com