It's been said that finding information on the internet is a bit like getting a glass of water from Niagara Falls. And for grizzled internet dating veterans, finding a suitable (read: sane, sound and decent) partner online seems to be every bit as tricky.
Some months ago, I was contacted via a dating site by a handsome, charming London-based banker. The website matches people according to musical preferences, so we had plenty in common right away. During our correspondence, I mentioned I was going to a music festival in Barcelona over the summer: "I'm going too with some friends, so I'll definitely buy you a drink there," he wrote. So far, so encouraging.
A day later, he mentioned that he was flying into Dublin for work a week later and wanted to buy me dinner. Not a problem, I think. Girl's gotta eat and all that. Two days later however, and my spidey senses started to kick in: "I know this sounds crazy, but I'd love to fly you to London this weekend," he wrote. "We're having a corporate gig and lots of bands are playing, and you'd really love it. What's your passport number and I'll book you a flight?"
In a sense, it all sounds rather romantic and spontaneous, but I knew better. After all, this isn't my first time at the rodeo. When I reminded him that we'd be better off acting like sensible adults, he unleashed a torrent of email abuse… this time in broken, garbled English. And, come to think of it, his profile picture looked uncannily like a certain obscure actor…
Scratch the surface and 'catfish' stories such as these are simply an occupational hazard for the regular online dater. Alas, others aren't quite so lucky. Of course, it could be argued that in terms of personal safety, the risk of meeting someone dangerous online is the same as meeting someone in a bar or gym. So why do people seem that bit more vulnerable online?
Oftentimes, people who have signed up to dating sites have tired of the more orthodox ways of meeting someone. Some are battle-weary; some are cynical; some are vulnerable or heartbroken. All are actively lasering in on that one desire they have - to find a plus one, be it forever or for one night. It's an explosive combination that often means that folks are prone to believing anything they are told. If you want something badly enough, in other words, you're more likely to ignore those all-important red flags and insidious warning signs.
Modern matchmaker Avril Mulcahy (www.avrilmulcahy.com) has seen this first hand: "I've had two clients coming to me over the last 12 months who were conned by a man. One lady says she was tricked out of €10,000 and it's currently going through the courts," she explains.
"Because there's no real verifying or vetting process, God knows who the person you are talking to might be," says Feargal Harrington of Intro Matchmaking Agency (www.intro.ie). "But people are always hoping for the best. With a matchmaking agency like ours, we meet everyone face-to-face, and we check passports and driver's licences. 60pc of our business is people who have tried online dating and have had a really negative experience from people lying about who they are."
Ostensibly, Tinder offers this security, requiring as it does a legitimate Facebook profile to activate an account. Yet according to dating coach Paul Hurley (www.thedateacademy.com), this sometimes lulls users into a false sense of security.
"I could steal a photo of someone on Google images, set up a Facebook account and the verification process is then essentially useless," he says. "All it means is that the person who sets out to cause someone harm has simply gone to more effort to do so."
The warning signs of an unhinged character are laid bare pretty early on in online communication. If a person is too good to be true, there's a very good chance that they are. If their communication is rather too (cough) ardent, it's probably no harm asking yourself why.
"If someone is writing you messages very late at night - unless that's the nature of their work - it's worth asking yourself why they might be writing messages that late," offers dating coach Fionnuala Wall (www.fionnualawall.com). "Someone can of course lie during communication, but trying to find out if their values and interests at least match yours is a good start."
That said, there's no harm in taking communication from a dating site to the relatively firmer terrain of social media (all while keeping your mobile phone number under wraps, for now).
"Things like Facebook and LinkedIn show a person's education and career history, which should put your own mind at ease," says Feargal. "If the person has new Facebook aliases or pages every week, that should raise some concerns."
Of course, exacting a divine balance between healthy paranoia and having a carefree, fun and flirty date is tricky… but not impossible.
"Some people say that asking a person to verify their identity with a driver's licence on a first date kills the passion, but it's definitely becoming more acceptable to say it," says Harrington. "You can word it in a particular way with a person: 'look, a friend of mine had a nightmare, and I'll tell you all about it, but the guy wasn't who he said he was, so this will just make me feel more comfortable'. If you didn't do everything in your power to stay safe, you'll always be a little on edge on the date. If you get that awkwardness out of the way, it can be a funny thing down the line."
In today's hook-up culture, the temptation is always there to throw caution to the wind. But according to Mulcahy, a first date isn't necessarily the time to act out sexual fantasies.
"Keep them to your partner or someone you've gotten to know for a while," she says. "We need to break this link with online dating and hooking up because there are a lot of people using dating sites who actually expect a hook-up on date one." The more we differentiate between the two, the better things will be all around.
Quite apart from all else, staying safe on a first date is a question of basic common sense: "Arrange to meet in a public place and don't get picked up from your own home," advises Harrington. "Much of the focus on a first date is on drink, but if the date revolves around food as opposed to getting hammered, you stand a stronger chance of seeing if you're meant to be together. Also, tell your friends where you are going in advance: there's no harm in them putting a phone call in halfway through the date. And, if you find yourself needing a bathroom break, take your drink with you and never leave a half-finished drink on the table."
There are red flags to keep an eye out for: if your suitor wants to meet late at night; if they're being overly pushy about meeting up; if they're alluding to sex on the date a lot. Above all else, says Mulcahy, keep in tune with your gut.
"Don't think that this person is your only option," she says. "Never make a decision because you feel desperate. Trust me, there are loads of great people out there."