In the Internet age, it can seem as if there are endless options for finding people to date. Love and romance is just a mouse click or a swipe away. But unfortunately so is stranger danger. It's easy to convince yourself you've found the man or woman of your dreams based on an appealing profile on a dating website or app and maybe some enticing text messages.
But Maria Coder, author of "InvestiDate: How to Investigate Your Date," says anyone hitting the web to find love should woo and be wooed with one eye open.
"Nobody says, 'Hey, I'm an ax-murderer, let me buy you a beer.' That's not how it works, people know they supposed to put their best foot forward," Coder, a former crime and general assignment reporter, told CBS News.
"Things have changed in the world, things have changed on the web. You can be anybody. And moreover, when you've been dating on a website for while, you've been logging in and you're full of hope, you want to be done with this, you want to find someone already. Lots of times we deceive ourselves before we even give the other person a chance to do it," she said.
Coder learned from her own experience. Years ago, she dated a man exclusively for a number of months only to learn when she spotted his open Facebook profile that he was still having trysts with more than a dozen other women. She had recently just started writing her instructional book. The devastation could have made her crumble and give up, but instead she started writing faster. These days, the New York City date-vetting expert teaches workshops on how to spot a dud and stay safe while looking for love.
Here, in Coder's words, are five red flags for digital daters to look out for, and some practical -- and free -- websites anyone can use to conduct their own investigation before saying yes to online love.
Red Flag #1 - He's too eager to move your conversation off line
Be wary of "racecar lovers" -- anyone you're emailing or instant messaging who is pushing you to move too fast. Dating is about getting to know someone. Sure, you don't want to be on the dating site forever but you shouldn't feel uncomfortable or like you're being rushed.
If you choose to communicate via email or instant messaging, set up an account that's just for dating. All info streams into one account that's free of personal identifiers, and you should share the password to this account with two trusted friends for safe-keeping.
Create a "Date-a-Base," which is a database to keep track of your dates. It's also a good idea to email yourself one-liners throughout your date like "Going with John to ABC bar on Upper East Side." You're not interrupting anyone and you're leaving a digital trail, should it be needed.
Red Flag #2 - If she doesn't have a photo, move on
If your would-be date doesn't have a photo on the dating site, move on. There's no reason for that. Just about everyone has a camera on their phone, at minimum.
If you're a guy trying to date a woman on Craigslist and are worried you've run into a transvestite, copy some of the text from their posting into the Gender Guesser web tool to see if it was written by a man or a woman. If you're suspicious it's a hooker, then don't respond.
It's a good idea when posting ads looking for a date to post two ads -- a real one and one that's racier or different from you. Then if you're using your Date-a-Base you can compare the responses and make sure, even if the wording and photos are slightly different in the emails, that the person appears to be the same. Someone who says they're a teacher in one place should be a teacher in another. If she's 5'4" in one response she shouldn't be as tall as Victoria's Secret model in the next.
Red Flag #3 - He says things that don't add up
If your date seems to know a lot about, say, Florida for a supposedly life-long New Yorker, he could be hiding something in his past. Is he married? Sites like Zabasearch can take a look at address history. Also, if he says he owns an apartment in New York City, you could check to see if he's the only person listed as its owner; property records are searchable in the city.
It's always a good idea to check if he's a sex offender; you can do that free on www.criminalcheck.com.
Also, pay attention to what he says about work. If he says he's a vet yet is allergic to your cat, that's weird. Or a doctor who was squeamish about a paper cut? Check accreditations or call after hours and try punching his name into the company directory to check if he actually works there... and wait to hear the message on the voicemail.
Red Flag #4 - He says he has a great financial opportunity
Dating a Wall Street whiz kid may sound great, but that doesn't mean you should take financial advice from someone you just met. If you're asked early on to invest in something, run don't walk to the nearest exit. And always use FINRA's broker check to look up credentials and disciplinary actions before you even consider trusting this person with your money.
Red Flag #5 - He says he's in the military and won't be back for a few months
Huge red flag! These types of scenarios come up a lot and most of the time it's just not true, particularly if you're asked to wire money overseas for return papers, airfare and other incidentals. Use Google Image search to check where else the person's photo may pop up. It's actually pretty tricky to find out if someone is or was in the military, but Archives.gov is a good reference. It's important to know that even Western Union, which is a service to send money, has issued press releases warning daters not to send money.