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TODAY contributor
updated 6/17/2009 7:15:13 PM ET 2009-06-17T23:15:13

Q. I read your response to the woman asking about continuing to see someone she met online who insists they keep their relationship unknown to his children and friends.

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I applaud your comment that you aren’t a big fan of online dating.

After a 30-year marriage, I met someone online. I was so convinced he was a good, gentle, intelligent, honest human being who had fallen in love with me, as I had with him. After selling my home, cashing in all my stocks and turning them over to this man, I was taken for a ride, along with about 200 other “investors.” He has now been sentenced on federal charges and is serving time in prison.

Unfortunately for me, everything I worked so hard for my whole life is gone. If only I had read the opinions of those like you who know that online dating can open the door to as much heartache, disappointment and destruction for one person as all the hopes, dreams and romantic aspirations of others put together.

I hope my story helps people. Please always keep me and others like me in mind when you share your opinion of online dating. Why in the world aren’t more advice-givers voicing their concerns?

A. Thank you for passing this story on. As you know, I believe people must be extremely cautious when meeting others online.

I do think that many advice-givers offer warnings and safety tips, but they are often drowned out by gushy stories of people finding their “soul mates” and being struck by “love at first sight.” These success stories make the news because they are so unusual.

Remember: Online dating services are companies selling a product. In some ways, they are like the lottery selling a dream. They promote their successes and not their failures.

A person most susceptible to being misled is someone like you, who telegraphs desire, or even neediness or desperation, for a relationship.

For some people, this vehicle for meeting does work out. For those who have no other way to meet people, it might be the best they can do.

Typically, people experience garden-variety frustrations and disappointments. They may have dozens of dates that are a waste of time, or many awkward, unpleasant encounters. Sometimes they are annoyed that people they like don’t call them back.

It’s not terribly common for people to lose their life savings, as you did, or to be injured or killed. These stories also make the news because they are so unusual.

Still, there are big risks, emotional and otherwise, to getting involved with people you meet this way. The medium makes you feel you know so much about them. But, in truth, you haven’t spent much actual time together or met others in their life. You are easily manipulated and lulled into a false sense of security.

Unfortunately, people meet con artists offline as well. I don’t know of any foolproof method to never be duped.

In my book, “Anatomy of a Secret Life,” I wrote about people who live secret lives. These people are often so good at keeping secrets that they are not easily detectable, especially by someone who wants love badly and ignores the rumbling in the gut that picks up on red flags.

Bad signs include a lot of unaccounted-for time, elusive statements and being kept away from relatives, friends, colleagues, neighbors or others in this person’s life.

When you “get to know” people online, you are seeing them through a layer of edited words as well as pictures that might or might not be true. Therefore, the medium provides a greater potential for embellishment, dishonesty and secrecy.

In the context of online dating, it can work against you to be loving and generous. These are wonderful traits. I don’t want to advocate for being paranoid and distant, nor do I want to condemn people for seeking a loving relationship.

But if you are going to date online, you must understand that the situation is not the same as meeting somebody at work, through friends or in a class. The people you meet online are complete strangers.

You don’t know whether your date is a quality person, and you should proceed with skepticism. It’s naive to believe this is the same as dating the guy who works a few cubicles down, or even the neighbor you say hello to every day.

Online dating often favors quantity over quality. It might be easier to meet someone, but you have more work on the other end to get to know someone.

So make sure you are properly cautious, as far as arranging to meet in a public place and not getting into a car with a stranger. Never give or “lend” somebody money, and be completely sure before you make life changes such as moving in together, having a child or adding someone’s name to your bank account.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: People you meet online are utter strangers. If you do choose to get involved with romantic partners this way, proceed with extra caution.

Any ideas, suggestions in this column are not intended as a substitute for consulting your physician or mental health professional. All matters regarding emotional and mental health should be supervised by a personal professional. The author shall not be responsible or liable for any loss, injury or damage arising from any information or suggestion in this column.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her most recent book is “The Ripple Effect: How Better Sex Can Lead to a Better Life” (Rodale). For more information, please visit www.drgailsaltz.com.

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