Remember when online dating was something most people looked at with trepidation?
Well, that's not the case anymore, not for a huge number of U.S. adults. Studies estimate that as many as 40 million adults in the U.S. use one or more of the scores of online sites out there in their search for love, companionship, and attention. That's a long way from the genesis of the online dating industry way back at the Match.com's founding in 1995-an industry that would grow to an estimated $700 million in value.
And as the online dating industry has grown, suspicion has been replaced by acceptance. What was once regarded as a risky endeavor has become a routine part of the modern dating scene. Consider that the number of adults who think online dating is acceptable used to be 44% in 2005. That number rose to 59% in 2013.
And that's not just young singles either, who are easily the most active users of online dating services. According to a 2013 Pew Research study, use of online dating sites spans all ages although it does taper off in older age groups.
If you have been considering your toe into the online dating pool, this is good news for you. It means that you're likely to meet a lot more people there. It means that your friends and family won't look at you as if you're crazy when they hear you've set up a Zoosk profile. All good things.
But there are some downsides to the proliferation of online dating.
As the number of people on online dating sites has increased, the wrong kinds of people have also managed to join them. Dangerous people. Manipulative people. People looking to get ahold of your most sensitive personal information. You see, as online dating has become more accepted, we've all let our guards down a little. And that has opened up the perfect opportunity for online predators, in all their forms, to go to work on online daters.
In the spirit of knowing the risks so you can avoid them, here are six hazards that have befallen online daters that would do well to steer clear of:
One of the most shocking examples of online dating abuse involved a series of vicious attacks that began on an online dating app. Last month, criminals in Florida used an online dating app to arrange in-person meetings. Once the unsuspecting daters arrived, they were carjacked, robbed, and had guns placed to their heads by four men. This happened to four separate victims, perpetrated most likely by the same group. Luckily, in all four cases, their attackers did not pull the trigger.
Although this could happen in a normal dating scenario, online dating makes it especially easy to fool daters because of the anonymity it provides. When you can't see their face and read their nonverbal cues, it becomes that much harder for people to sense impending threats and avoid them.
What to do about it: As an online dater, your best defense is to be very careful about who and where you chose to meet. If they seem pushy, especially in regards to meeting in person, step back. Watch their language: if they just praise you and then jump straight to arranging a dating, be suspicious. If they want to meet someplace isolated or private, request to meet someplace more public.
Like most other social networks, online dating services collect a ton of information about your while you're busy searching and flirting. And we're not just talking about your contact information or your email address. No, with you taking quizzes and sharing stories and intimate details with other users, an online dating service can know more about you than your parents or your closest friends do, details like:
When all is said and done, the information that online dating sites hold about you would, if known to the public, be embarrassing at least, life-destroying at worst.
And here's the scary part: just like Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, online dating sites are vulnerable to security breaches, despite their best efforts to keep these things from happening. Which means that all your deepest secrets could end up in the hands of hackers or identity thieves.
Consider what happened last year to the 4 million users of Adult FriendFinder when their systems were hacked and the users' most personal information, including their sexual orientations, was leaked to the public.
And what about last year's data breach at adultery website Ashley Madison? I'm not going to argue that the users of that site didn't have it coming, but imagine that happening on Match.com or eHarmony or PlentyOfFish or Tinder or whatever online dating service you use. Information that was meant to shared between you and someone (potentially) special would suddenly be shared with the world.
What to do about it: Dating sites and other online daters are going to push you to fill out one more quiz or answer their questions. While you might feel pressure to do this to be found by more daters or to reciprocate attention, be selective about what you share, just as you would on Facebook or Twitter. Don't share anything that you wouldn't want your mom-or the local news-to see.
It's not hard to see how online dating can be used by sexual predators to draw in victims and then strike. In recent years, laws have been passed that require dating sites to require background checks for their users, but cases of sexual assault still surface regularly.
In fact, in January, an eHarmony user arranged to meet a potential suitor at the Port Authority bus station in New York City. Her date didn't waste any time in forcing her at gunpoint to a secluded spot, where he assaulted her.
Although the exact number of sexual assaults that are perpetrated via dating sites and apps is unknown, law enforcement officials don't hesitate to say that online dating has only made it easier for predators.
What to do about it: As mentioned above, spend plenty of time getting to known a user before saying 'yes' to a meeting. Watch out for language that tries to push you prematurely into a meeting. Ask the user questions to test their honesty. Most importantly, pay attention to any nagging doubts or feelings you might have while corresponding with users. Always, err on the side of caution.
Almost from its very beginning, online dating sites became a hot spot for thieves and frauds. Bands of thieves set up dozens of fake accounts, told unsuspecting women everything they wanted to hear, gave them sob stories about not being able to leave their country or set up their dream business, and then watched as money poured in from soft-hearted daters.
Unfortunately, even the best dating sites still do little to prevent thieves from setting up fake accounts and deceiving users. And this activity continues to present a real threat to online daters.
Recently, one scammer was found to have been courting over 60 women on 25 different websites-by pretending to be a Pentagon consultant, a country music manager, and more-tricking them out of thousands of dollars of their own money.
What to do about it: Don't trust anyone who asks you for money on an online dating site. For that matter, be wary of anyone online who asks you for money. Be wary of people who claim to be in love with you after chatting for only a few minutes. Real relationships take time and experience, so be skeptical of relationships that seem to spring up in seconds. Also, online thieves are often recognizable from their poorly kept profiles. Their information might be inconsistent with the photos or, since many of these scammers are based in other countries, they might have uncommonly bad spelling and grammar.
Remember, all the risks that can arise in normal dating can also occur in online dating. For instance, once you let yourself become close to someone online, and especially once you starting seeing them in person, they now know your phone number, maybe where you live or work. If things in your relationship go south and you try to cut it off, the wrong kind of online dater might decide they don't want it to be over.
Sadly, stalkers do happen in online dating. One story on the website for the Network for Surviving Stalking tells the story of an online dater named Jemma who met a man who seemed to match her interests. After some hesitation, Jemma let him get close and they became a couple, only to break up a few weeks later.
But he wasn't ready to let go. He bombarded her with emails, phone calls, and voicemail messages, until it got so bad that the police stepped in and arrested him. The dating site did little to rectify the situation.
Surprisingly, Jemma went back to her dating site, only to meet a scammer with multiple profiles, who, after getting intimate with her, then turned into another stalker.
Yes, stalkers thrive on dating sites. Taking things too fast is exactly what they count on. Or at least that's what we should take away from Jemma's sad tale.
What to do about it: Slow things way down. Ask the people you meet on these sites about their background, their interests, and watch for inconsistencies. As stated above, pay attention to what your gut is telling you about that person. If you feel like something isn't right, don't agree to meet them and don't, under any circumstances, let yourself get intimate with them.
While not quite as scary as being attacked or stalked, this problem is easily the most widespread problem you'll find in the online dating world. One consumer review after another online tells of customers signing up-some on a free trial, others on a paid plan-and when they try to cancel, continuing to have payments taken out of their bank accounts for months.
Read, for example, this eHarmony review from customer Joline in Wisconsin:
"I joined this dating site, completed all the required questionnaires, there were only approximately 10 "matches." I called and emailed 3 days later to cancel my subscription due to the lack of matches. They have continued to withdraw $40.95 from my account every month."
This problem is due to a feature that automatically renews your plan when it expires. So if you opted for a six-month plan and you don't inform them within at least three days of expiration, they will renew it. Nearly all the online dating services use this model. Often, even when customers do inform them of their intent to stop their subscription, the dating sites conveniently don't see the customers' communications until the expiration date has passed.
Worst of all, most online dating services have inadequate or no customer support, so when this problem does arise, there's no one to talk to to resolve it.
What to do about it: First, make sure you read your dating site's terms of service (sometimes called "terms and conditions") before you sign up. Make sure you know exactly how their cancellation process works before you sign up. Second, keep a record of all your communications with dating sites. Fortunately, email does this automatically. And then third, if your dating site does continue to bill you after your cancellation, know that, if their customer support fails to fix the issue, you can submit a complaint to the Better Business Bureau and provide your communications to them to support your complaint. This tends to light a fire under derelict businesses to resolve customer issues.
eHarmony? PlentyOfFish? Tinder? Learn more about which online dating services are right for you on our Online Dating Reviews page.