PANAMA CITY BEACH, FLORIDA // With as many as 40 million single Americans using online dating services or web-networking sites such as MySpace to look for love, it would seem that there has never been an easier time to find a soulmate online. But experts, law enforcement officials and private investigators warn that the world of internet romance is fraught with peril, ranging from liars to sexual predators and even murderers, who hide their motives behind seemingly innocuous virtual identities.
"When we pushed for more stringent background checks on online dating sites, one company told us the idea of asking for disclosure was creepy," said Bill Noble, the director of the Safer Online Dating Alliance. "But what is actually creepy is having these creeps on your site." The numbers are worrisome - and horror stories abound. In February, MySpace was forced to cancel 90,000 accounts on its site that authorities revealed were linked to registered sex offenders. It was a fraction of the 130 million users of the site, but a significant percentage of the more than one million registered sex offenders in the United States.
In April a Boston medical student, Philip Markoff, dubbed the "Craigslist killer" by the media, was arrested and changed with murdering a masseuse who advertised on the popular website's erotic services section. Two months later Craigslist was hit with another scandal when it emerged that a North Carolina man used the site to hire a man to rape his wife while the husband watched. Bill Warner, a Florida private investigator who offers on his website to "sort out the winners from the losers" for a flat fee of US$169 (Dh620), says running background checks on potential internet dates now constitutes more than 50 per cent of his business.
"Usually the problem is that the man is married or he turns out to be one of these crazy stalker people that follows a woman for months," he said in a telephone interview. In many cases, Mr Warner said he would discover that men had joined a site using a false name, a prepaid, throwaway cell phone and a phoney e-mail address from free services such as Yahoo or Hotmail. "There are a lot of people out there who get jazzed up by disguising themselves," he said, adding that nearly 100 per cent of his cases involved women being victimised by men.
Industry experts say the website True.com is unique in the field for warning on its home page that criminals and married men who come hunting "will be sorry if they do". The site recently sued a convicted sex offender in California who tried to register himself as an eligible bachelor. But True.com is one of the few online dating websites to actually run background checks on its members, even though a recent survey found that a majority of people visiting online dating sites believed that most did.
"It's shameful because it lulls women into a false sense of security," said Mr Warner. "You get young naive women or the over-50 year olds who are recently divorced, they are often excited about meeting a new man and they make easy prey." In some instances, the first date ends in violence. Last October, for example, police in Minnesota charged a 39-year-old man with raping a woman he met through the internet, after he slipped drugs into her drink that caused her to pass out.
In other cases, the motive is financial. Police in Tampa, Florida last January arrested a Tennessee man who was wanted for swindling a woman he met online out of tens of thousands of dollars and leasing a Mercedes in her name that he wrecked, leaving her with more than $60,000 in liabilities. There are stories that are even more sinister. The Safer Online Dating Alliance warns women on its website never to post photos of their children, nor to describe them in detail, saying that single mothers who openly say they seek partners who like children have inadvertently attracted paedophiles.
Although it is less common, men have also been victimised, usually by other men who are posing as women. Law enforcement officials and advocacy groups say they are not trying to shut down the online networking world, but to teach people how to navigate it safely. "A lot of couples have found each other on the internet and not everyone is a predator," Mr Noble said. "But it is also possible to develop a false sense of familiarity with someone you have only met on chat sites and through picture exchanges. But at the end of the day you have not met the person. Whereas meeting in a bar, you might immediately feel the hair on the back of your neck stand up, with internet dating you have let your guard down by the time you interact face to face."
Some commonplace things seem to happen without special premeditation, effortlessly. We grow up, find work, find someone to marry, have children and accomplish other such purposes without paying them much attention. So it seems. Perhaps that is true for some people; but certainly not for everyone, and probably not for most. Most of the effortless success that others seem to have is an illusion. Most of life’s problems are not solved easily or automatically.
Almost everything worth having or doing is accomplished more readily by an aggressive, systematic attempt to achieve that purpose. Putting it simply, good things happen to people sometimes just by luck alone, without much effort, but not often.
Suppose you want to buy a house. Is it likely that the first house you look at will turn out to be the house of your dreams? No. More likely you will have to look at fifteen or twenty houses before you decide to buy one. If you look at one house every week or so, this process can take a long time. If you look at ten or twenty houses in a week or so—which is possible—you can find that house pretty soon.
The same applies to jobs. I think everyone should always be looking for a new job, in case a better job shows up unpredictably, as they do from time to time. But looking for a job is enervating. Interviewing requires putting yourself up for someone else’s approval, or disapproval. Most of the time interviews are not followed by a job offer. But it is not possible to get a good job without going through such a process. The more interviews a prospective employee goes on, the more likely he/she will finally receive a desirable job offer.
But when struggling to do something, such as find a job, it is important to know what your chances are, so that you do not become demoralized after repeated disappointments. Rejections are inevitable. They do not mean that such efforts are doomed to failure. Studies show that of those submitting resumes in response to an advertised job opening, only two percent will receive an invitation to visit the prospective employer! That means that an applicant can be turned down, or ignored, forty or fifty times in a row without there being anything wrong with his/her application.
The high rate of rejection is not an argument against sending in these applications; it is an argument for sending in more and more of them. If the chance of success is only two percent, the odds begin to favor the applicant if he/she responds to four or five hundred job possibilities. The problems inherent in this process are two: it is difficult to find four or five hundred job possibilities, and it is easy to become demoralized after being turned down over and over again.
This same process of pursuing statistically unlikely opportunities is required for success in many endeavors, for example, publishing a novel, or trying out for a professional sportsteam, or leading a successful rock band. Most people who reach these objectives only do so after repeated attempts. Or, putting it differently, repeated failures.
Take the matter of dating. Some young men and women meet in high school; and sometime later, perhaps years later, they marry. They never have to deal with the awful feelings of unrequited love. They have never been jilted or disappointed over and over again by meeting one unsatisfactory person after another. They have never experienced the difficult problem of turning away a suitor without hurting his/her feelings. Similarly, they have avoided getting their own feelings hurt when they were the one who was being rejected.
But most sensible people think it is a bad idea to marry young. There is too much young people need to learn about themselves to know what sort of person is most likely to make them happy. Of course, I have seen over the years a number of couples who married their childhood sweethearts long ago. Some of these marriages have lasted and seem to be happy. But in the setting of my office, where people are likely to be frank, most tell me that they wonder sometimes how it would have been being married to someone else. I think that those who meet the right person right away are probably unlucky, rather than lucky. On the other hand, the trials of dating are real.
In prehistoric times, when human beings travelled in small bands of perhaps fifty to a hundred people, there could not have been much choice of mates. It is hard to imagine anything like dating in those days; but men and women did come together, even then. They may not have paired off, exactly; there may have been harems. But even then there must have been some choice involved. After all, other animals have elaborate courtship behaviors. Mammals and birds, and other animals have to win the attention of a possible mate. In prehistoric times, individuals probably had to choose from only a half-dozen or so potential partners. Still, this arrangement worked out well enough for us to have showed up very many generations later. But more choices make for better choices. That must be true.
An argument for internet dating:
We have now, in the time of the internet, an inestimably huge number of potential mates, or to put it in the current vernacular, dates. I have a list of fifteen or twenty dating sites. There are probably twice as many. Some are free. (I don’t recommend those that are free since the people on those site are less likely to be financially successful.) Some people, especially some older people, have a prejudice against internet dating. They make the following objections, which I have described in a previous post and in a somewhat different context:
Meeting strangers is potentially dangerous. Not entirely false, but certainly not true. Meeting people through the agency of these dating sites is no more or less dangerous than meeting them any other way.
Presenting oneself publicly as wishing to meet someone suggests, in the minds of some people, that such a person is driven to dating this way because he/she is unsuccessful dating in a more conventional way. Plainly, false. Patients whom I have known who date successfully are largely inclined to date people they meet in all sorts of places, church, work, parties, and so on—but also at internet dating sites. Why not? There are advantages to internet dating:
- You can be in a dating situation at home, dressed comfortably, at a convenient time.
- Communicating over the internet, you can be careful about what you say (that is, text). You can be thoughtful, rather than impulsive. If it is ever possible for you to be clever or witty, this is a time that favors you. You have time to think. (By the way, I don’t really recommend that people struggle to be witty or charming; it is too hard. Aim for friendly.)
- You start off knowing a lot about the other person. There is a picture, usually. (The picture is chosen, obviously, to emphasize attractiveness. Also, the picture may be a few years out of date, but is still helpful in getting an idea about how that person looks.) Other bits of information include age, level of education, nature of employment, religious ideas, smoker or non-smoker, interest in sports etc. Not all of this is reliable. Exaggeration is more common than outright deceit, although outright deceit certainly does occur from time to time. Still, this is a lot more information than you have about a blind date, let alone someone you meet at a public place such as a singles dance or a bar.
- You get to find out even more about the other person before arranging to meet. Texting back and forth for a while tends to eliminate people who tell off-color jokes and who are otherwise unsuitable. A prospective date may seem unsuitable because of his/her use of language. Or for writing ungrammatically, or for any of a hundred other reasons.
- You can approach a great number of people simultaneously. The rule, here, is that you can certainly date more than one person at a time, but you cannot sleep with more than one person at a time without breaking an unwritten rule and appearing in the minds of most people to treat sex too casually.
- There is some reason to think that the other person will know enough about you by the time you meet not to want to reject you out of hand, which happens sometimes in blind dates and dating in other contexts.
There is, however, a third objection to internet dating:
As is true in the situations described above--finding a house to buy or a good job—you are likely to have to try many times, over and over again, before you are successful. It is important to realize and accept that any single dating opportunity is not likely to result in a long-term relationship, SO YOU MUST NOT BECOME DISCOURAGED BECAUSE OF REPEATED FAILURES. If the first half-dozen first dates are unsuccessful, it does not mean that you are unappealing or that you are too picky. Unless you are extraordinarily lucky, the first ten or twenty people you meet—or thirty or forty—are not likely to constitute a good fit to you. Finding the right person is like trying to fit an unusually shaped peg into a similarly shaped hole. There are plenty of people that fit, but they are a very small minority of all the people out there.
I do not know of any reliable statistics about this matter, but the figures I give below approximate the way these dating situations are likely to progress:
If you are really serious about dating, you join three or four dating sites. You read the profiles of other clients and put up your own. That profile should be honest. (Any lies will surface sooner or later.) Be straightforward. Do not come across as boastful. Do not come across as someone who loves everything in the world from classical music to sky-diving. Do not pretend to being more exciting than you are. Try to come across as a serious person who likes to do things and is interested in new things. Seeming to be sophisticated is not appealing. Since everyone has a tendency to exaggerate, try to seem genuine.
Read other people’s profiles with that in mind. You are likely to find four or five people who seem to be appealing. Maybe. You reach out to them, but only one or two respond; and they seem unenthusiastic. This is par for the course. You are, hopefully, undeterred. Of the next batch of people you reach out to, two respond. You text back and forth with them. One of them who has pretended to be well-educated makes a bad grammatical error, and compounds the offence by telling an off-color joke. The other person, however, seems okay. The two of you talk on the telephone.
You arrange to meet for only an hour or two for coffee or a drink. Since many of these dates are immediately unsatisfactory, there is no reason to make the experience last any longer than necessary. If the two of you are getting along great, you can change those plans.
These first dates only work out about one in three times. The rest of the time you will not like the person sitting opposite you, or he/she will not like you. It is a reminder that, whoever you are, some people will like you and some people will not. You will meet some with whom you have so much in common—so many reasons that the other person should like you—but that person inexplicably will not. On the other hand, some people will take one look at you and think you are terrific, smart and good-looking, and wonderful, for no good reason. Search out this person.
Perhaps one out of every four people you date two or three times will seem to you to be so interesting and so much fun, you begin to think the two of you can have a long-term relationship. The rest peter out. Out of those relationships that last a month or two, perhaps one will really get serious—to the point where you both consider that maybe—just possibly—if you are lucky--- you might develop a permanent attachment. And out of these, perhaps only one out of two or three eventually lead to marriage. This happy ending can be reached within a year by someone who is prepared to date aggressively and who does not get discouraged. I have seen it happen a number of times.
Unfortunately, even after getting married, one out of two couples separate eventually.
This whole process will be disheartening and annoying if you enter into it solely with the idea of finding someone to marry. The proper attitude is to look forward on this next date simply to having a good time. It is possible to have a good time dating, even when the person you are with is plainly not going to be someone you will marry. Otherwise, it is like swimming across an ocean without being able to see the other shore. You get tired. With the proper attitude, it is more like swimming in a lake on a sunshiny day. You can enjoy yourself while you make your way to the other side.(c) Fredric Neuman 2013 Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog