The perils of looking for love online

If your Valentine's Day seems a bit empty this year and you've decided to go online to find your next love interest, watch your step. An analysis of online dating site reviews shows there's much to be wary of -- and not just the risk of meeting a loser.

The crew at SiteJabber.com, which collects reviews of websites, went through about 10,000 reviews of online dating sites and found some disturbing patterns. Among the most worrisome: phony profiles.

"Fake profiles of attractive men or women are often used to get people join or engage with a dating site, only to be disappointed when their dream date turns out to be a phony," SiteJabber co-founder Jeremy Gin said. "Or worse yet, fakes may be escorts or scammers."

Nearly 1 in 5 complaining reviews mentioned encountering phony descriptions and images that appeared to be planted there to get people to sign up, he said. The problem was found across numerous sites.

Reviewers were also irked to to come across profiles that were really ads for escorts. Others, they complained, appeared to be set up to scam users. Reviewers noted than many of those who appeared interested in their profiles turned out to from nowhere near where they lived, with many from Africa and Eastern Europe.

Another big problem SiteJabber users reported claims about services being free, and then being hit with hidden charges. About 16 percent of those who complained about dating sites reported being surprised by charges. One way that cropped up: A service would be free -- until users tried to respond to those who expressed interest in their profile.

Another billing-related issue that users complained about was difficulty in stopping recurring monthly fees. Some people were charged hundreds of dollars or more before they were able to halt the charges.

"Online dating can be a great way to meet people or even meet your future spouse, but it pays to choose an online dating service carefully," Gin said. "And even if you're using a well-recognized service, phony users and hidden charges can still be an issue. Reading reviews can be a great way to educate yourself on potential problem."

Here are some tips Gin offered to those who are considered using a dating site:

  • Check reviews before choosing a dating site to make sure it's legitimate, and see if other users have had issues with hidden fees and fake profiles. This way you know what to look out for.
  • Once you join a dating site, check your statement if you provide a credit card to make sure there are no additional charges.
  • Once you're on a site, be sure to watch for red flags, such as too-perfect profile photos, premature professions of love, and requests for personal information, money, or anything else that might make you think twice about a stranger.
  • Choose a public place if you decide to meet someone in person. Also arrange your own transportation, and let a friend know what you're up to so he or she can check in.
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    Mitch Lipka is an award-winning consumer columnist. He was in charge of consumer news for AOL's personal finance site and was a senior editor at Consumer Reports. He was also a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, among other publications.