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Online dating 'predator' screening: Not foolproof

March 21, 2012 at 3:47 PM ET

Just because three major online dating sites have agreed to screen for sex offenders and offer some advice about predators doesn't get you off the hook. That's right: You, the good egg, the one who's trying to find a nice guy or gal on a reputable online dating site. You still need to be careful. Very careful.

The California attorney general's office announced Tuesday that Match.com, eHarmony and Spark Networks signed a joint statement of business principles "intended to provide an example for the industry and help guard against sexual predators, identity theft and financial scams," according to the Associated Press story.

A statement of business principles is probably worth the paper it's written on, but there's little doubt the companies — all legitimate, and used by millions of Americans to try to find true love — will take it seriously.

"Among other things, the companies agreed ... to check subscribers against national sex registries, supply members with online safety tips, and provide a quick way to report abuses. Some of the companies already are using some of those practices," said the news story.

The effort to shore up safety is a result of a case that got some very public attention, the 2010 sexual assault of a California woman by a man she met through Match.com.

The online dating sites "can't be sued for not following this, but it puts them in the public eye," said Lynda Gledhill, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office.

It may put them in the public eye, but don't let it give you a false sense of security. No matter what kind of screening is done, nothing is fool-proof, especially when it comes to information like this. It's still up to you to be your own personal security guard; no one can or will do as good a job as you. So, before you click too much or too far, you hopefully know some of the basic red flags, but here are some more to keep in mind:

  • When it comes to moving from the online dating site communication to your own email, "provide an email address that isn't your regular one," writes Joe Tracy, publisher of Online Dating Magazine. "Sign up for a free Yahoo!, Hotmail, or Gmail account that you use just for online dating. Don't put your full name in the From field — only your first name or something else. This protects you from a person being able to search your normal email address to find out more information about you."
  • Don't ever give out your cellphone or home number. Ever. OK: maybe when you're ready to walk up the aisle. Instead, use a prepaid cellphone.
  • Match.com has several safety suggestions listed, including: "Drive yourself to and from the first meeting. Just in case things don’t work out, you need to be in control of your own ride — even if you take a taxi," and when you're out with your date, to not leave "personal times unattended" (like your phone or wallet). If you're drinking, "keep your drink with you at all times so it can’t be tampered with."
  • Spark.com suggests saving your copies of your online conversations, especially in chat areas or chat rooms. "The easiest method of logging conversations is to simply highlight your entire conversation and paste it into a word program. Save each conversation and date it."
  • "Never do anything you feel unsure about," says Pepper Schwartz, a sociology professor at the University of Washington and a relationship expert at PerfectMatch.com. "If you feel uncomfortable with your date, use your best judgment to diffuse the situation and move on down the road. Excuse yourself long enough to call a friend for advice, ask someone for help wherever you are, or simply slip out the back and drive away. If you feel you are in danger, immediately call the police ... It's always better to be safe than sorry. Never worry or feel embarrassed about your behavior. Remember, your safety is much more important than one person's opinion of you."

"Keep your guard up," says OnlineDatingSafetyTips.com. "Everyone is not out to get you but there’s no harm in just staying careful." And staying safe.

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