Beware Physical, Financial Dangers of I-Dating

For many of the millions of Americans who have tried online dating, it is an exciting new way to look for the partner of their dreams. But there are potential physical and financial dangers lurking, too.

Cat Hermansen said her experience with online dating took a terrifying turn when she invited a man she met online to pick her up at home for their first date.

"I told him to have a seat on the couch and I sat down beside him," Hermansen said.

"And he pushed me back ... and started pawing at me and everything, and what he didn't know is that I could reach down and I pulled my gun out and I put it in his face right between his eyes."

Hermansen said she feels she would have been raped if she didn't have her gun.

"He jumped up and ran out the door -- didn't even say bye."

Millions Look for Love Online, and Many Find It

The latest research finds more than 1,000 dating sites on the Web, and nearly 9 million Americans say they subscribed to dating Web sites during the last year, according to analysts at Jupiter Research.

A few, such as True.com, do background checks on subscribers, but most do not.

True.com is lobbying state legislatures for laws requiring background checks or at least clear warnings that users are on their own. But some executives of other dating sites say meeting people the old fashioned way isn't any less risky.

"Dating that begins online is no more dangerous than dating that begins offline," said Kristin Kelly of Match.com.

And, for many customers, using a dating Web site pays off.

"My experience was excellent," said Sara Labowitz, who found her husband, David, through an online dating service. "I met the man of my dreams."

Roses and Champagne for a Scam Artist

But experts warn online daters to look out for their financial as well as physical safety when using the sites.

After signing up for Yahoo.com's dating service, Julia Abrantes received an e-mail from a potential suitor telling her, "I can promise you my everlasting devotion, my loyalty and my respect for a lifetime."

The man told Abrantes he was working in Nigeria and eventually asked to borrow money so he could wrap up his business and fly to the United States to be with her.

"I had roses in every room, a bottle of champagne in the fridge," Abrantes said. She waited for hours at the airport, but the man never showed up.

"I got in a cab, and I came home and sobbed hysterically," Abrantes said.

When Abrantes started investigating the incident online, she discovered the discussion group Romance Scams. Founder Barb Sluppick says 243 members who responded to a survey said they had lost a total of $2.2 million -- about $9,000 a piece.

Abrantes reported her scammer to Yahoo, and the company removed his profile. But when ABC News asked her to check for the man's profile again, she found the same Web site and the same pictures.

The pictures used by the scam artist were actually of a model in Hawaii who had been swiped from the model agency's Web site, Abrantes learned.

Yahoo personals said it acts aggressively when customers report scams. When Abrantes complained for a second time, Yahoo again removed the profile.

"We take offering the best online dating experience very seriously and we ... provide a safe and secure environment for singles," Yahoo said in a written statement.

Play It Safe

Experts say that people who choose to date online should use caution:

Plan first dates in public places.

Make sure friends know when and where you're going on a date and arrange to call and check in at the end of the date.

Get a disposable cell phone to use specifically for online dating. If a suitor starts to harass you, you can ditch the phone and get another.

Ask a lot of detailed questions. Con artists won't have easy answers and will likely drop out of your life.

Never send money to somebody you meet online. If someone asks for money, it's time to end the relationship.

Don't forward checks or packages to people you meet online. Scammers may be trying to lure you into laundering bogus checks or stolen merchandise.

ABC News' Elisabeth Leamy and Allen Levine reported this story for "Good Morning America."

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