Aug. 23, 2007 -- More than 20 million Americans log on to their computers each month looking for love, according to Online Dating Magazine.
While getting to know a potential mate from the privacy of their home may be comforting to some — especially single women getting back in the dating pool — it is not without danger. A growing number of sexual predators and pedophiles are taking advantage of online anonymity and using dating sites to prey on single mothers and their children.
One single mother, who asked that her identity be withheld to protect her daughter, had such an experience.
She met her future husband online and within in six months, the couple were living together. Two years into the relationship they married.
"At the time, it just seemed magical," she said. "It was the dream come true."
Discovering the Truth
But FBI agents said they discovered the man's true intentions when an undercover agent intercepted his e-mails during an online chat. "These e-mails indicated that he actually married the mother to have access to the child," said FBI Special Agent Deborah McCarley.
Police said lonely women looking for companionship can be easy targets. In this case, the man took advantage of the mother's vulnerability to get to her 6-year-old daughter.
"I think I was really looking for someone to rescue me, although I didn't recognize it at the time," the mother said.
The mother said she decided to speak out for the first time on "Good Morning America" to help other women.
Confronting the Allegations
The woman said she had no idea any abuse was taking place and saw no warning signs until the day the FBI knocked on her door.
"That day I felt like somebody stuck a straw in my ear and sucked out my brain," she said. "It really just felt like I had been punched in the stomach."
A tape obtained by "GMA" captured her anguish as she confronted her husband on the phone.
Mother: How could you do this to me?
Husband: How could I do it to anybody? I don't know.
Mother: How could you do it to her?
Husband: I'm sorry. I have no answer.
Mother: I trusted you!
Husband: I know. You're right.
Mother: I loved you with all my heart!
Husband: What I have done is evil and it's wrong and there are going to be a lot of people that are going to hate me now. And I don't blame any of them.
Not only did her now-former husband molest her daughter, but he also offered the girl to other pedophiles online. Authorities stepped in just in time.
"I'd never say that I was going to kill myself, but there's times where I wish that I would die," the mother said.
Now, the couple have divorced. The ex-husband currently is serving 30 years in prison for his crimes, while his victim continues her health process.
"She's awesome," the mother said. "She's doing so well. She's got her sense of self-worth back, and I'm so proud of her."
A Disturbing Trend?
This case is just one example of predators using dating sites to supplement their crimes.
After conducting online searches and talking to law enforcement officers around the nation, "GMA" uncovered cases of dangerous online dating situations all across the country.
The research found instances of sex offenders trolling Web sites and not mentioning their pasts, Internet romances that led to beatings and rapes and felons who never addressed their convictions in their dating profiles.
"Once they feel comfortable on that Internet, they feel like they're shielded because they're on that computer," said Phoenix Police Department Sgt. Andy Hill.
True.com is the only major online dating site that runs background screenings on all of its members in order to keep criminals and married people off the site. This includes filing civil lawsuits against convicted felons and registered sex offenders who lie about their records.
"I'm out to get them and I'm serious as a heart attack," said True.com CEO Herb Vest. "I will get them. I want them off our Web site."
Celeste Moyers, the director of the Safer Online Dating Alliance, said that if someone wants to do harm, that person will find a way to do it.
"People are caught off guard," she said. "Even the smartest savviest online dater can be a victim of sexual assault."
States including New Jersey are considering legislation that will require dating sites to clearly disclose whether or not they conduct background screenings on members.
Even if you aren't sure the site you use conducts criminal background checks, online dating doesn't have to be off limits. Check out Safer Online Dating Alliance's tips for protecting online daters.
Don't use your personal e-mail address. Create a specific account just for dating. Don't include information in this new address that would allow a predator to identify you.
Do not post pictures of your children or give out details about their sexes or ages.
Meet new dates in a public place, not at your home.