The Online Dating Game: Tips That Can Help You Stay Safe and Protect Your Identity

When Rat Pack singers croon about "strangers in the night," it sounds so romantic. But in the online dating world, meeting strangers can be scary and poses a whole host of challenges.
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When Rat Pack singers croon about "strangers in the night," it sounds so romantic. But in the online dating world, meeting strangers can be scary and poses a whole host of challenges, among them money scams and identity theft. Here are a few safety tips you should know before you go looking for love online, with some reassurances from seasoned "virtual" daters.

Don't exchange personal data online.
Wait until you actually meet the person and build up a level of trust before you share your address, phone number or real email address. (You typically use an encrypted email on these sites.)

Stay local.
Apparently it is easier for scammers to work their magic long-distance, where it is more challenging for them to get caught. Keep on the lookout for hardship stories: This person should be courting you, not asking for an emergency handout!

Make sure what you see is what you get.
Upload a potential date's photograph on TinEye, which will let you see where else on the Internet the photo has appeared. Many scammers steal photos from Facebook pages.

Watch for odd language.
While scams are often local, many come from abroad. Their messages are filled with bad grammar and often have an odd tone. (Consider the fake Nigerian prince email scams so many of us have received.)

Listen to the experts.
"Online dating safety is a hot button for me!" says Julie Spira, a leading online dating expert, bestselling author of The Perils of Cyber-Dating, and creator of profiles for singles via "Dating sites (usually) take their members' safety issues very seriously and make it easy for you to report any suspicious profiles or serious problems right away. Some sites even offer the member an option to sign up for a background check." Here are her top tips:

• Do a Google search for your date's name.
• Don't accept a late-night date.
• Use Google Voice and create a phone number exclusive to dating. Have it forward to your cell phone, so your dates don't know your cell or home phone number.
• Never give out financial information.
• See if you have friends in common on Facebook.
• If you're uncomfortable on a date for any reason, just get up and walk out.

Seasoned but wary: The scoop from users.
The online daters I spoke to voiced mixed feelings about their experiences. "I'm still a little wary about it and would prefer the 'love at first sight while petting a dog experience,'" says Agatha B., age 27. And despite enjoying a handful of dates, 24-year old Patricia B. feels that online dating is "a little bit like picking someone out of a catalog. Without a shared history or mutual friends, the people feel interchangeable."

Jeff N., 55, says that he has slowly warmed up to online dating: "I used to be very shy about it and still don't feel entirely comfortable. Maybe I'm a bit old-fashioned; I like to meet in person first and then see where things go, rather than communicating online, then meeting the person and seeing if they live up to expectations," However, he adds, "Online dating forces you to be more outgoing, and it is an easy way to potentially connect with a lot people, especially if one isn't in many social situations."

Eve B., is a 55 year-old teacher and writer in Manhattan who did her homework prior to her first date:

I did Google religiously when vetting a cyber-date prospect, to try to find out as much as I could about him -- and thus assure myself that he was who he said he was. I could see that he had a Facebook friend with whom I'd gone to college. When I asked about that, he told me that the guy was a good friend of his. This made me comfortable that he wasn't a serial killer!

Eve B., who for nine months has been dating her match that she found at OKCupid, shares what surprised her most about the experience:

I can't believe that I have stupendous physical chemistry with someone whose pheromones I wasn't able to sniff out until after the initial online joust and parry." She adds: "Dating online is simply another way to meet people. Maybe you'll meet someone nice in a museum, or at a party, or at work ... or online. Another door. And why not walk through it and see what happens?

And, just be a little careful while you're at it.

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