THE BLOG

Tips for Finding a Safe Date or Mate Online

03/19/2013 04:45 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2013
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Finding your soul mate is a numbers game and, sadly, the odds do not favor true love.

In fact, research suggests it's a sucker bet. Studies show that a single man or woman hoping to find a long-term partner should engage in somewhere between 15 and 25 new dates per year if he or she hopes to meet meet just one or two potential long-term partners, but typically singles give up long before they find that compatible someone. While the same research also indicates that many get to the potential reward, more often they quit after four or five dates -- usually blaming themselves for not being good enough -- when date No. 6 may have been the winning entry.

So how can a working single person deal in the kind of volume it may require to find happiness? One can certainly cultivate the fields of friends, family and coworkers for introductions to single men or women, but that can produce only a limited harvest.

This leaves you with only a handful of options. You can join an organization that may or may not interest you, hoping that one of its members might. You can spend time in karaoke and singles bars, and meet people who hang out in karaoke and singles bars.

Or you can go online. For most of us, this last option is the best. Let's face it, searching for dates in the digital universe is usually a lot easier, more enjoyable, and more productive than joining a pottery class even though you hate pottery or guzzling overpriced cocktails while listening to some pathetic wannabe demolish the latest Adele tune.

Finding the Right Person

Whatever you're seeking, be it a long-term partner, a short-term hookup, or anything in-between, there are certain things you can do to raise your odds of success:

  1. Be honest. If you're 55, don't try to pass yourself off as 35. If you post a photo (and you'll generate much more interest if you do), make sure it's reasonably recent (within 3 years) and actually looks like you (size, weight, hair, etc.) Don't say that you're a doctor or some other type of professional if you're not, as lying impresses no one. And don't say you're looking for a serious relationship if all you want is casual sex. It's not nice, and it probably won't get you the action you seek anyway. Here's the thing, the people you meet online are eventually going to find out who you really are and what you're really looking for, so you might as well save yourself and them a lot of time and potential heartache by being honest up front.
  2. Know what you're looking for, and narrow your search accordingly. Online dating sites/apps allow you to refine your exploration in a variety of ways, winnowing out individuals unlikely to appeal to you based on everything from smoking and drinking status, to education and employment, to location. Pick three to five non-appearance-related criteria that are highly meaningful to you and limit your search to individuals who meet your benchmarks. After doing this, you can look at the pictures of people with whom you have something in common to see which ones you find physically attractive. If no one comes up, perhaps you are a bit too picky and need to start again with broader parameters.
  3. Pick the right dating site/app for you. If you're seeking a relationship, think about established sites like eHarmony.com and Match.com. You might also consider specialty dating sites geared toward religious affiliation, sexual orientation, and/or age such as JDate.com (for Jews who want to meet Jews), ChristianMingle.com (for Christians who want to meet Christians), and OurTime.com (for those over 50). If you're seeking a casual sexual hookup, it's best to consider smartphone apps like Blendr, Skout, Grindr, and PinkCupid.

Liars, Scammers, and Perverts, Oh My!

It's no secret that the Internet is home to more than a few of nefarious people, many of whom cruise dating sites and apps in search of potential victims of one sort or another. As is the case in real life, dating online will bring up some icky peeps. These individuals are a small minority of the online population, but they nonetheless exist, so if you choose to explore the online dating world, you should do so with your eyes wide open. To protect yourself, you need to keep in mind that successful online predators rely on the fact that with only written words, photos, and perhaps a short video as introduction, an emotionally needful person can easily "fall for" an individual whom they really know very little about. This is a big concern for digital daters (female and male alike) who are too busy to meet their opposite numbers in real time. (Former Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o is one prime example of this.)

The Bad Guys ...

Dating site bad guys essentially fall into two categories: sexual predators and financial scammers.

Sexual predators romance their potential victims via apps, emails, IMs, and video chats, pretending to be the victim's perfect partner. Usually the perpetrators are thoughtful, attentive, and flattering. Spinning an intricate web of lies about themselves and their feelings, they build in their victim relationship trust and emotional dependency. Then, when the victim is hooked, they spring their trap, convincing the vulnerable individual (of either gender) to meet them at their home or in some remote setting where that individual will be vulnerable and alone.

Financial scammers also spend much of their time and effort building trust with potential victims. After they get someone to "fall for" them, they suddenly need money that only the victim can provide. Basically, they prey on our natural instinct to help a loved one in need. Oftentimes the scammer is (purportedly) traveling in a foreign country (on business, a charity mission, etc.) and he/she is suddenly in the midst of a medical emergency. Usually the scammer needs emergency surgery that can only be paid for in cash (because he/she is in a "backwards" foreign country). At that point the victim is asked to wire a large sum of money because the perpetrator's own funds are "tied up" for some reason. Another common scam involves the charming foreigner who desperately wants to come visit you but needs money to pay for a plane ticket or visa. You send the money, and that's the last you hear from your online sweetheart.

Sadly, many individuals lured into dangerous situations and/or financial scams are either too afraid or too embarrassed to report the abuse once it has occurred (think rape or putting your work/personal reputation in the hands of a stranger who now has nude pics of you). Even worse, victims sometimes blame themselves, feeling as if they should have known better. Unfortunately, not reporting what happened increases the odds the perpetrator will repeat and perhaps even escalate his/her actions with others.

Having Fun and Avoiding Abuse

There are a number of things you can do to protect yourself from dating site and hookup app predators, the most useful of which are:

  1. Trust your instincts. If you're feeling uncomfortable, something is wrong. Period. So get out. It doesn't matter how charming and attractive the other person is, if the situation feels "off," it probably is. Remember, under no circumstances are you obligated to continue a date or an online interaction.
  2. Meet in public, and "buddy up." Your first meetings should take place in a public space (coffee shop, café, mall, etc.), even if your goal is a casual sexual hookup. You should arrive at the venue on your own steam, and plan to leave on your own; this way you are less likely to get "trapped" in someone else's car for a premature make-out session or driven to a location you'd rather not visit. Make sure a close friend or family member knows who you are meeting, when, where, and for how long. Arrange to check in with that person at least once during your date. It's also not unheard of--nor is it impolite--to ask a friend to hang out at the venue, discretely keeping an eye on you from across the room.
  3. Never respond to a stranger's request for money or nude pictures that show your face. You can show your face in person or you can send a picture of your face at the Grand Canyon, just make sure you are wearing clothes in the picture. Always remember that pictures and videos taken and sent via smartphone can easily be posted online for all to see.
  4. Go Dutch. When you initially meet an online companion IRL (in real life), both people should pay their own way for at least the first few dates. As stated above, if anyone you've met online wants money, naked pictures, or gifts, walk away. That person is not looking for love. No matter how charming and attractive he or she may seem, your alarm bells should be going off. And when alarm bells ring, it's time to move on. Should you feel your emotions overriding your instincts, ask a trusted friend or family member what they think about the situation before you take any next steps.

No matter what, if someone you've met online victimizes you in any way, you need to report the abuse. In addition to local authorities, there are a number of websites designed to assist people who've been victimized online, including www.haltabuse.org and www.romancescams.org. Don't hesitate to use them to protect yourself and others.

Why Bother With the Internet?

The simple fact is millions of individuals have dating and hookup profiles posted online -- vastly increasing their and your dating pool. Though online dating absolutely requires you to be on guard for potential harm, using the Internet to meet and date can truly be a game changer. Remember, the more honest you are about your appearance, what you have to offer, and what it is you're looking for, the more likely you are to find the type of relationship you seek. As long as you pick the right dating site for your desires and follow some basic safety rules, there is no reason you can't safely and enjoyable locate whatever type of partner you seek, be it a lifetime relationship, casual sex, or anything in-between.

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is the author of several books on sexual addiction and an expert on the juxtaposition of human sexuality, intimacy, and technology. He is founding director of The Sexual Recovery Institute and director of Intimacy and Sexual Disorders Services at The Ranch and Promises Treatment Centers. Weiss is a psychotherapist, addiction specialist and clinical educator. He has provided sexual addiction treatment training internationally for psychology professionals, addiction treatment centers, and the military. A media expert for Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times, Weiss has been featured on CNN, The Today Show, Oprah, and ESPN among many others. Rob can also be found on Twitter at @RobWeissMSW.