June 20, 2011 -- As if looking for love weren't intimidating enough, online dating can have shattering consequences. Take Carole Markin, a TV producer in Hollywood who recently sued a dating website claiming she was brutally attacked at her home by a man she met online who, she later discovered, was a convicted sex offender. Thankfully, Markin's experience is not the norm, but it contains lessons for online daters.
Meeting someone in cyberspace is significantly different from meeting someone in person. In the real world, your dating "site" is made up of friends, co-workers, family and acquaintances. While this network of "real" people doesn't ensure that you'll never have a bad date, having that personal and human connection is vitally important.
Seeing the whites of their eyes might be a cliche, but it's a cliche because it remains relevant. It gives you a sense of the person. Because we don't have the benefit of that personal contact online, there are some extra safety measures that need to be taken.
In the real world, you might meet potential dates at parties or bars, and often go out on group or double dates. You are in the unfortunate position online of not having enough information to determine whether you should trust the information you have. Can you trust that the picture really is of that person, that the person is even real to begin with and that all the person's information and communications are legitimate?
A safe encounter can often depend on a safe dating website. Not all sites are created equal. Here are some questions to ask to help find a site that is right for you:
Does the site screen-vet candidates?
How does the site lower the chances of abuse?
How does the site handle abuse if it happens?
Do the terms of service allow explicit content?
Does the site review webcams, chats and videos?
Does the site provide users with tips on how to safely and successfully navigate the site to avoid predators and scammers?
Does the site provide an emergency phone number?
Does the site run all users through a registered sex offender database such as SSP Blue's RSO SAFE?
It's comforting to think that everyone on dating sites is just as earnest as you are: looking for love and hoping to find a soul mate. Sadly, even the online dating world has scammers.
One of the more common scams involves a lovely woman with a gorgeous photo looking for a new love in America. Her story is a poignant one: no family to speak of, a big heart, a desire to see men she meets online. Eventually, this woman asks for money, perhaps to help with a ticket or because she has been detained trying to leave her home country.
The man wires her money, and then she disappears. This is disheartening, heartbreaking and all too frequent. This is one of many scams. Learn more here.
If you wind up making an online connection and want to meet in person, meet in a public place, preferably well-lit, familiar to you and in an area with which you are comfortable. While these suggestions apply strongly to women, men would do well to take note as well. Predators and scammers are not all men.
Engaging in safe dating online, in some ways, is no different from dating safely in person. But because you can't see the whites of his or her eyes online, your own eyes and ears need to exercise extra precaution.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.