Proceed with Caution: The Truth About Online Dating

Roughly 40 million people in the United States used at least one dating mobile application or website in 2012. Unfortunately, few of the companies that run these apps and websites verify the identities of their users, let alone conduct background checks. In other words, the onus is on you to protect yourself.

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Carole Markin went on her second date in early 2010 with a man whom she had met on Match.com. After dinner, he drove her home and asked to use her bathroom. Within minutes, she was raped.

Markin later searched for information about her attacker on Google and found that the man had a history of violence and had been convicted of rape.

“I believe that my case would have been totally preventable,” if Match had screened him in the first place, Markin tells Consumers Digest.

Match.com now screens its users against the National Sex Offender registry databases and started to do so after Markin sought a court order that required the company to screen. Even so, Match.com says an error in one of the databases meant that the name of Markin’s attacker wouldn’t have appeared on the list of sex offenders anyway.

That’s troublesome when you consider how many consumers place their trust in these services to build a relationship, find a date or just meet a new friend. Online dating services were a $2.1 billion industry in 2012 with at least 1,500 websites in the United States, according to MarketResearch.com. About 40 million people in the United States used at least one dating mobile application or website in 2012, according to Statistic Brain, which is a research company.

Make no mistake: Online  dating services work for many people. Seventeen percent of couples who were surveyed and who married in 2012 met online, and 20 percent of couples who were surveyed were in current committed relationships that began online, according to Statistic Brain. Furthermore, no independent data indicate that online dating is any more dangerous than is offline dating; i.e., meeting someone at a bar or a party.

Law-enforcement officials tell us that it’s impossible to estimate the percentage of sexual assaults that’s linked to online dating, but they tell us that Markin’s experience wasn’t an anomaly. Unfortunately, most victims don’t file a police report, and no database tracks the number of sexual assaults that are linked to online dating. 

Scant information exists on fraud and extortion cases that are connected with online dating. According to FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), 4,467 people reported being the victim of such crimes in 2012. That’s down from 5,663 in 2011. The 4,467 victims who reported being the victim of an online dating crime are a small percentage of the total number of victims, says Donna Gregory of IC3. However, neither Gregory nor any of the four law-enforcement experts with whom we spoke could say that crime is a larger problem with online dating than it is with traditional dating.

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Of course, typically when you go to, say, a bar or a party, you don’t have to pay to meet people and strike up a conversation the way that you do with online dating services. Online dating services charge as much as $60 per month for the privilege. Unfortunately, we found that too often you might not get your money’s worth.

GETTING GRANULAR. Online dating services have existed for almost 2 decades, but they constantly evolve in the ways in which they use your personal information to connect you with possible partners. Some services now will ask you hundreds of questions to assemble as detailed a profile as possible about you and connect you with possible matches. Most online dating services allow you to see pictures of prospective dates free, but they typically charge $10–$60 for a monthly membership if you want to exchange text or video messages with someone. A membership also allows you to use a service’s matchmaking function, which asks you a series of questions about your interests and suggests people who might be compatible with you.

Almost every site claims that it has the best proprietary matchmaking formula, but a 2012 study that was published in Psychological Science in The Public Interest found that these formulas are mostly random. The study found that, in reality, the sites just pair you with people who live in your geographic vicinity.

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