One night a few years ago, Lisa Respers was startled out of her sleep by a phone call from a guy who threatened to kill himself if she didn't talk to him. Lisa, a frequent cyber surfer, had given him her phone number after chatting with him over the Internet. She quickly got off the line with the kook and vowed to be more careful about sharing personal information with people she met online.
Then, one day while visiting a Christian chat room, Lisa focused her attention on the words of one compassionate visitor. In response to a conversation about people who enter Christian dialogues just to say things like, "Jesus is dead!" the visitor typed that the rabble rousers needed prayer because they were obviously in pain.
That was about three years ago when Lisa, a 31-year-old journalist from Baltimore, met her man, Timothy*, a fine New York salesman whom she now calls her "absolute best friend." On Christmas Day, Lisa's computer love proposed to her in her parent's house in front of her family. Lisa's experience may sound unique, and judging by a recent ESSENCE.com poll, it's rare. When asked, "Would you date someone you met online?" nearly a third - 29 percent - of more than 900 Essence.com visitors said "yes." But nearly half - 49 percent - said "no." (Twenty-two percent were not sure.)
Looking for love in the wrong places?
Tracey Allen, 28, an advertising representative, sides with those who ruled out online dating. A woman who goes out with a man she meets in cyberspace is either desperate or crazy adventurous, she believes. "I have issues with divulging information over the computer," Tracey says. "A person could end up being Hannibal Lecter."
Dr. Joyce Morley-Ball, an Atlanta therapist who has dealt with cases of young women who were stalked and harassed by men they met over the Internet, agrees. "In person you can read non-verbals, look into a person's eyes and have an idea as to the possibilities," she explains. "Online a person can put up fictitious information and pictures."
But Lisa believes that meeting someone over the Internet is no different from exchanging numbers with a guy after a five-minute conversation in a club. The advantage of hooking up in a chat room is that after hours of online conversation, you get to know a man's interests, intellect and wit - before you give him your number.
Taking a chance on love
Women who use the Internet as a "meet market" are likely bold risk-takers looking for a new challenge, Dr. Morley-Ball says. Or they are sisters who have exhausted other means and see the Internet as the final frontier for dating.
In the past year or so, Hope*, a veteran online dater, managed to snag a date with a judge, a few computer engineers and a couple hotties with superb good looks. About half of the men she dates these days are guys who answer the ads she posts on Web sites such as blacksingles.com. Every week, the 31-year-old legal secretary from Chicago sifts through email from men who say they meet her requirements - earn $50,000 per year, have a degree, no kids, are Christian, stand 5'8'' or taller and don't smoke.
So far none of the seven guys she met online deserved a second date, Hope admits. She liked the judge, but after their date he sent her an insulting email with misspellings saying she needed a perm and had a run in her stockings. Others liked her more than she liked them, but she's still not discouraged from trying to find a computer love.
Finding online love - safely
We all know a man can turn out to be a weirdo whether you meet him online or at a church social. Morely-Ball cautions anyone who is planning to meet face-to-face with an online date to first do a thorough background check. Since there's no way to tell who a person you meet online really is, protect yourself by at least checking public records for a criminal history, address and phone number. Some states make driver's license and car registration information available online or for a fee (search "department of motor vehicles" in your state or go www.criminalusa.com).
Also be sure to:
- investigate each Web site's security features
- don't give away personal information (such as where you work) until you're completely ready
- meet your dates in public places that you're already familiar with
- and keep first dates brief (a quick coffee or tea) so you can exit after a 15 to 20 minutes if you want to -- or stay longer if your date turns out to be The One.
*Name has been changed