The search for love has become a booming business, especially online.
With as many as 40 million single Americans dating online, websites catering to people looking for a relationship bring in about $2 billion annually.
But sometimes people looking for romance online find themselves flirting with danger.
Law enforcement officials say Internet romances can often lead people to become victims of anything from fraud to sexual and domestic abuse by criminals hiding behind virtual identities.
While the most popular and legitimate dating sites, such as Eharmony and Match.com have a lengthy application process and fees to keep criminals at bay, there are about 1,300 other websites to choose from.
Craigslist and Plentyoffish.com are the sites that have caused the most problems locally, says Det. James Marsh with the Haywood County Sheriff's Office.
"It's important for people to remember, when people put up an online profile, they're not telling the truth. They can tell you whatever they think you want to hear," he said.
In one case this year, a local woman married a man she met online after only a few weeks of dating. About three months into the marriage, the man raped and assaulted her and now faces criminal charges.
As the case unfolded, Marsh discovered the man had been married five times before with a long history of domestic and sexual abuse.
"What dating sites have seemed to create is somehow the whole process of dating has sped up...You might think you're talking to prince charming and in actuality you might be talking to a registered sex offender who has been to prison for raping children. You really have no idea," Marsh said.
Lt. Chris Chandler with the Waynesville Police Department agreed, saying criminals online target those who are the most trusting.
"The biggest thing from our perspective is that you're really entering into a world of unknown and we recommend that you proceed with caution," Chandler said. "You don't know who you are actually talking to. It could be a convicted felon."
About three years ago, Chandler said Waynesville police thwarted what he believes could have been a tragic ending that began as an online relationship.
A group of 15-year-old girls had met three men in their late 20's online, who drove from a different state to meet them in the public park in Waynesville.
When police saw a suspicious vehicle at the park, they encountered the young girls with the men and asked them to part ways, even going so far as to call the girls' parents.
After talking to the men, they found rope, condoms and other objects in their vehicle. While it could have been coincidence, Chandler said he believes the men were looking for a "much more mature relationship" than the girls intended.
Since that incident, though, legislation has made online solicitation of a minor under 18 a crime, which would have led to the arrest of those men.
But pedophiles find their way around those laws, sometimes by targeting single mothers on dating websites.
Marsh said he's dealt with some child sexual assault cases locally that started with the mother meeting a boyfriend online.
Online dating fraud
On top of the dangers of sexual and domestic abuse, online dating sites are fraught with scams.
According to the Internet Crime Complaint Center, of the 314,246 complaints they received in 2011, 5,600 were related to romance scams.
Chandler said a Waynesville woman recently reported being defrauded of about $200 after meeting a man online.
In those instances, the criminal will take time developing a romantic relationship and then begin asking for money.
Sometimes, scammers will go so far as to send flowers or gifts to gain trust and then make up stories of personal hardships to ask for money.
And it's not just women who are victims of online dating fraud.
"These rules apply to men and women equally because there are different dangers for men than women. Men who respond to an ad on Craigslist could be bold about meeting and they are an easy target for someone who wants to set them up for a robbery," Marsh said.
Staying safe online
Although dating online can be dangerous, thousands of people, such as Waynesville resident Stacy Owenby, find successful relationships each year.
She met her husband on Cupid.com in 2004 and says it's important to be smart while dating online.
"If possible make your first date a double or group date so you can get a feel for the situation," Owenby suggested. "If that's not possible, make sure you meet in a public place during daylight hours, and let several people know where you are going and where you'll be back."
It's that type of mindset that will keep you safe online, Marsh agreed.
He added it's important to always be truthful online but never give out personal information or home address.
"Over all just have fun, it's not as bad as some people make it out to be, as long as you play it safe and don't rush into anything," Owenby said.
Recognizing an Online Dating
Your online "date" may only be interested in your money if he or she:
- Presses you to leave the dating website you met through and to communicate using personal e-mail or instant messaging;
- Professes instant feelings of love;
- Sends you a photograph of himself or herself that looks like something from a glamour magazine;
- Claims to be from the U.S. and is traveling or working overseas;
- Makes plans to visit you but is then unable to do so because of a tragic event; or
- Asks for money for a variety of reasons (travel, medical emergencies, hotel bills, hospitals bills for child or other relative, visas or other official documents, losses from a financial setback or crime victimization).
One way to steer clear of these criminals all together is to stick to online dating websites with nationally known reputations.
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