Back in the dial-up days, online dating was considered taboo. But with the advent of real-time status updates, photo tagging and app integration, the social graph has evolved and digital dating has been accepted by the mainstream. One in five relationships begin on an online dating site, and that's not counting romances that bloom via Facebook, Instagram, Yelp, Twitter and yes, even World of Warcraft.
This brings us to MTV's latest hit, Catfish, which proves the Internet hasn't entirely shaken itself of all its creepers. The network's latest reality show highlights a different "couple" on each episode, all who met online... but have yet to meet face-to-face. The premiere's first heterosexual duo was together for eight months and exchanged I love yous, but only communicated through the web and phone. Turns out that cute-as-a-button Sunny wasn't in a relationship with a male model after all; when she met up with Jameson, he was in fact a she -- named Chelsea. Virtual lust ended in offline deceit.
For those who haven't yet found your match, Catfish might make you paranoid but ultimately, the show is doing online daters a favor. Exposing emotional scammers will make it easier for you to read the virtual signs and more challenging for others to impersonate the love of your life. Just like any tool, the Internet is all about how you use it. If you're educated on the ins and outs of online dating, the behavior of others' won't affect you, and you can use the web as a way to empower your love life, rather than regressing to the stigma society once had. So power up your heart's hard drive and follow these rules to keep your screen devoid of emotional scammers:
After six emails, meet up. When you're really into someone, it's easy to let conversation get intense online. But virtual messages should be a way to eCourt each other, not the entirety of your connection. If you feel yourself getting emotionally wrapped up before meeting, get offline ASAP. Avoid feelings overload by making plans after six messages, or if you're on Facebook like Sunny was, two IM sessions.
Skip the phone. When you're eFlirting, it's always best to make plans online rather than moving to the phone. While this may seem counterintuitive to some, think of it this way: In our busy lives, finding time when both of you are available to chat on the phone becomes yet another thing to do before meeting and can block your relationship from moving forward. Talking on the phone creates a faux familiarity with each other that will shift when you meet face-to-face. That said, phone calls are a must if you're on the fence about a match and unsure if they're worth your time for a cocktail or coffee. And if you can't get past skipping the phone, your red flags should rise if you have marathon conversations where emotional things are revealed. Emotional scammers tend to keep you involved in the virtual relationship by confiding in you about intimate events (like in Sunny's case, where her "boyfriend" told her about "his" sister who passed away). Details like this should be disclosed in person.
Google rules. When you get offline quickly like suggested above, steer clear of Google before you meet. Ideally your match's first impression should be made in person, not through the search results for their name. But if you've been chatting for much longer and your match has revealed an emotional event, get Googling. If the facts don't line up, it's time to log off from your eRelationship.
Date dodging = delete. Canceling dates or being shy about scheduling is the biggest red flag that you're chatting with an impostor. I talk about this in my book, Love @ First Click: The Ultimate Guide to Online Dating, and it should be a non-negotiable for you. Canceling once is fine -- we all have our busy moments. But three strikes and he or she is out. Delete your match's username, phone number and Facebook profile from your life and move on to someone who will appreciate you even more offline than online.
Remember, while Catfish is reality, it's not the norm. The hundreds of marriages that happen every day as a result from online dating are proof! So keep your safety in mind, but have fun and get your eFlirt on.
Laurie Davis is the founder of eFlirt Expert, an online dating consultancy, and the author ofLove @ First Click: The Ultimate Guide to Online Dating. Laurie was nominated Best Dating Coach in the 2013 and 2012 iDate Awards and her advice has been featured in over 200 international media outlets including The New York Times, Good Morning America, Men's Health and Marie Claire.