SPECIAL REPORT: Sweetheart Safety - How to be safe when dating online

SPECIAL REPORT: Sweetheart Safety - How to be safe when dating online

COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - It used to be a bizarre idea- meeting someone through the World Wide Web but now, more and more singles are using the internet on a regular basis to find their special someone.

According to online dating statistics, about 41 million Americans use an online dating service, because many say it is easy, fun and convenient. But as easy as it looks, online dating can also be dangerous and painful.

People see ads about couples who meet online and succeed in marriage. This fairytale can be yours too, if you keep some tips in mind while you search for "The One" on the Internet.

"We can let go of our defenses and get comfortable when we meet people online," said Courtney Loving, a marriage counselor from The Family Center. "I think that is what is so attractive about it. You're not taking the big risk of getting coffee with a stranger yet, but you are taking a little one by getting to know someone you've never met via websites."

Loving explained online dating sites tend to make interacting with others easier than ever. She believes people can tie the knot with others they meet online if they are honest about their profiles.

"Can people really connect online? Of course, 100 percent," Loving explained. "The more honest you stay, the most space it gives the other person to be honest with you. Honesty breaks down barriers more than anything."

Desiree Topor, a local online dating member, agrees with Loving. Topor said she never started online dating to find dates in the first place. Her family and friends met lifelong friends on dating websites, and she just wanted to try it out.

"My family and friends met good friends or even spouses on online dating sites," Topor said. "But it is important for you to be careful when you talk to people online."

Although Topor tries to stay true to her profiles, she said some online friends she encountered were different in person versus chatting with them online.

"When you are texting or emailing, you have a phone or computer to hide behind," Topor explained. "When you meet that person face to face for the first time, it can be awkward, like first meetings usually are. It's definitely different when you are meeting a stranger."

According to ABC News, women who say they love dogs and drinking get more attention from men compared to other girls who say they don't. Wired.com also reported men who say they enjoy outdoor activities with jobs like accountant, doctors or teachers can get more ladies.

However, Loving said while these traits may be important, personality plays the biggest role in landing you that date.

"It doesn't matter if you have all the traits people want in a spouse," Loving added. "Do you have a genuine personality? Can I open up to you and be honest? If people can't open up, then they will have difficult time trying to connect with each other."

E-Harmony also reports that profiles with attractive photos are nine out of ten times more likely to get attention from others. Also, a study said women were attracted to men displaying pride, while men were attracted to women showing happiness.

However, finding love on the internet is still a young idea, and it can be dangerous sometimes.

Topor said she tries to stay safe by putting up appropriate pictures and guarding her personal information from those she meets online.

"Some of the people you might meet are not genuine," Topor said. "You never now what you are going to get, so you just have to be careful."

Sgt. M.J Richards said Columbus deals with multiple cases of internet predators. He sees about the same number of adult and teenager victims in our area.

"Many times people put their guard down because they want to make friends or they are establishing a friendship," Sgt. Richards said. "One of the things to do is to filter the people you should be avoiding on sites. If someone gives you an uncomfortable, uneasy feeling, that probably means you should block that person. You don't know if you are talking to a younger or older man or woman."

Topor had a similar problem few months ago that made her realize how scary online dating can be.

"My biggest problem is even when you set up age perimeters, people outside of that perimeter still contact you," Topor said. " I had one negative experience. A much older man emailed me 16 times and some of these emails were rude and confusing. I blocked the person and reported him."

Some online dating sites often make users think they can out their guard down. Christian Mingle, for instance, may seem like a safe place since the website focuses on God and Christianity. The site also requires members to accept a safety pledge before moving forward after registration.

However, some predators can still use these sites to their advantage.

"People are eager to find companionship, so they assume whoever they are talking to is a kind-hearted adult," Sgt. Richards said. "Generally, I think adults and teenagers both need to take precautionary steps to be safe."

Never give out your financial information, or other personal information on your work, passwords, or home address. Set up gender-neutral information, and make your profile private or keep it simple, so you do not have to reveal too much. When you are ready to meet your new friends in person, make sure to meet in a public setting. Never offer to pick them up or visit their homes on first dates.

Also, if you are receiving emails from predators, make sure to report and block the person. However, if the predators continue to bother you, call the police.

In Georgia, online predators can receive punishment from stalking and threatening someone online.

"In Georgia under the title 1600 Georgia code, penalties range anywhere from 20 years in prison to $100,000 fine," Sgt. Richards said. "This covers a while game of different charges which include computer child sexual exploitation, stalking, and other cyber crimes."

Teenagers are also trying online dating sites nowadays. Nearly 75 percent of teenagers met offenders in person more than once. Fifty-eight percent of teens in America do not think posting personal information on social networking and internet dating sites is unsafe.

Thus, Sgt. Richards said educating our children early to look for warning sings when surfing the Internet is important.

"Educating children about internet manners will help them be more knowledgeable when they grow up," Sgt. Richards said. "They will know how to establish settings, what to look out for online and to become more familiar."

Topor said she will continue to be careful online to avoid meeting predators.

"You can't trust everything that's online," Topor said. "Make sure to be careful and really know who this person is before meeting them in person."

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