Prudence or paranoia? Online dating detectives push romantic background checks

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To the list of modern dating essentials — breath mints, a clean shirt, the ability to sit through a chick flick or comic book movie with minimal fuss — add the following: Do-it-yourself background checks.

Such is the idea behind InvestiDate, a website and series of classes that brings romance into the TSA era, teaching singles how to use public information and Internet sleuthing to vet potential romantic partners.

Found the perfect online match? Just met cute with the possible man or woman of your dreams? Not so fast, counsels InvestiDate founder Maria Coder, a 35-year-old public relations manager from New York City.

Your future significant other could have a criminal background, be married, running a financial scam or hiding a substance abuse problem.

At the very least, they’re probably akin to a potential professional basketball draftee: a bit shorter and heavier in person than officially listed.

“I find men often lie about their height, and whether their hair is thinning,” said Ms. Coder. “For women, it’s shaving five or ten pounds off their weight. Those are white lies. Not a big deal. But it becomes a big deal when people lie about what they do, where they live, who they are.”

The ubiquity of online dating services and social networking, Ms. Coder added, has made big-deal romantic deception both easier and more prevalent.

Case in point? News reports that con artists are using the names of real U.S. military personnel to create fake online dating profiles.

There’s also the story of Stephan Pittman, a convicted Maryland sex offender recently arrested for impersonating professional football quarterback Vince Young on the Internet and in Philadelphia and Washington-area night clubs in order to solicit sexual favors and fraudulent charitable contributions from star-struck, unsuspecting young women.

“It’s imperative in today’s dating world that you know what you’re getting yourself into,” Ms. Coder said. “You don’t really know who you’re dealing with when you meet them online — you might get an 80-year-old guy posing as a 25-year-old. That in itself poses a huge safety risk.”

Nothing to Hide

Of course, one woman’s prudence is another woman’s hyper-vigilance, and one woman’s precautions are another woman’s intrusive, self-defeating biographical strip searches. Critics say InvestiDate is scaring women into scaring off the very men they’re hoping to date.

Noting that Ms. Coder advises her students to send out a strand of a dating partner’s hair for online drug testing, a British newspaper article accused her of “cashing in on female paranoia.” Meanwhile, when InvestiDate was featured on New York magazine’s website, anonymous commenters labeled class attendees “psycho,” “scared of the world in general” and — most damning — “on their way to spinsterhood.”

Unsurprisingly, Ms. Coder takes exception with the negative characterizations. Her students, she said, are satisfied. One of them, a neuroscientist, used Ms. Coder’s techniques to research potential employers. And the drug test suggestion is meant as a last resort for people whose partners exhibit serious behavioral issues — not as a first-date preliminary.

Besides, Ms. Coder said, people who have nothing to hide hide nothing.

“No one is doing anything illegal or in a trench coat hiding behind a bush with ‘Pink Panther’ music,” she said. “It’s about looking for the information that is already out there. … If you find out your partner is an alcoholic and gambles away all their money and you’re OK with that, then go ahead. Just be aware of the situation you’re getting into. Wouldn’t you rather know?”

As for the “road to spinsterhood”? “I kind of thought that after people found out about InvestiDate, I would never get a date again,” Ms. Coder said. “But I just got a note from someone from England who wants to go on a date. He sent me a link to his Facebook page and asked me to investigate him.”

Dating Clues

During a recent class held in a Manhattan office building, Ms. Coder deployed a laptop and a projector to teach her students — mostly women in their 30s — how to analyze the online profiles of prospective love matches.

Tip No. 1: If someone uses the word “honest” to describe him or herself, they probably aren’t.

Tip No. 2: Check photos carefully. If a picture was taken at a bar or restaurant that has since shut down, it’s probably old; if it’s a close-up shot, it could mean a man is shorter than he claims, or that a woman is cropping out a boyfriend; if it’s a series of vacation photos, it could mean the subject already has a significant other, because no one not named Kardashian travels with a personal photographer.

Tip No. 3: Input the profile’s text into the “Gender Genie,” an online algorithm that supposedly can ascertain whether a profile was written by a man or a woman.

“That one is more for the guys than the girls,” Ms. Coder said with a laugh. “There are a lot of hookers online, but also a lot of drag queens.”

When using online dating sites or Craigslist, Ms. Coder advises students to set up two profiles: one of them real, the other a “control post.” While the real profile contains a person’s actual information — height, hair color, likes and so on — the control post is fabricated and exaggerated.

Brunette? Claim you’re blonde. Short? Say you’re tall. Demure? Sound licentious.

The goal, Ms. Coder said, is to ferret out dishonest potential suitors who write to both profiles — and include contradictory details in their two romantic pitches.

“It’s helped me with a couple of guys who responded to both posts,” said Jen, a 33-year-old aspiring actress and Manhattan resident who has taken Ms. Coder’s course. “They seemed nice and genuine in one post, and then in the other they only wanted one thing — and it wasn’t my mind.”

The control post idea occurred to Ms. Coder after she broke up with a previous dating partner, an Italian graduate student she met on Craigslist.

“We had gone on several dates, and one Friday night he canceled, saying he had to study,” she said. “So I went on Craigslist, said, ‘My date just canceled, I’m all dressed up and ready to go out for drinks.’ And he responded to me! The guy was just dumb.”

Other ways to suss out the truth about your date? If they claim they’re a doctor or lawyer, check with the appropriate professional licensing organizations; if they say they went to an Ivy League school, call the alumni office; if they’re popping pills that aren’t coming from an amber prescription bottle, run the pills’ identifying number stamp in a drug-identifying database — it could be something harmless, like an over-the-counter headache remedy, or something dangerous, like an addictive painkiller.

It’s even possible to ballpark a potential partner’s income level, Ms. Coder said, provided they live in New York City.

First, use the neighborhood they live in to figure out their ZIP code. Next, input that number into a website that supplies corresponding rent levels.

Finally, divide the rent figure by the suitor’s number of roommates, then multiply that figure by 40 — in New York, renters are supposed to have an annual income 40 times their monthly rent.

“I started thinking, ‘How do you know that you won’t become some unemployed guy’s meal ticket?’” Ms. Coder said. “Look, I know the economy is tough and that New York is expensive. I’d rather date a guy who has nothing and works his way to what he has. If you’re out there flipping burgers because you lost your job, I respect that. I would go out with that guy in a second.

“But no one wants a mooch. I knew someone who was dating a guy that was on his way to being evicted, and she had no idea.”

Romantic Self-Defense

Jen had no idea. Just a hunch. She found it odd that the man she was dating had a sparsely furnished Manhattan apartment, yet offhandedly mentioned owning a house on Long Island.

After taking Ms. Coder’s course, Jen was able through online searching to ascertain that the man actually lived on Long Island — and then discover that a listed a female associate of his who shared the same last name was actually his wife.

“I dumped him on the spot,” Jen said. “It was hilarious because he used to make jokes about me trying to trap him into a marriage someday.

Jen faithfully follows two of Ms. Coder’s precepts. First, she keeps what Ms. Coder calls a “date-a-base,” a separate email account used exclusively for dating that allows Jen to cross-reference potential suitors and see if they have contacted her before.

“If six months ago he was a doctor, and today he’s a lawyer, he’s probably a pizza boy,” Jen said with a laugh. “The number of people in the world who are doctors and lawyers could fit in my closet.”

Second, Jen gave the account’s login and password information to a handful of trusted friends — in case something goes terribly wrong during a date, or she ends up like the unfortunate young women who disappear during Caribbean vacations and reappear on cable television newscasts.

“I think what [Ms. Coder] teaches gives you more peace of mind than anything else,” she said. “I have somewhat of a safety net.

“If you think back, people didn’t really date. [Couples] were arranged by families and communities. Women didn’t even live on their own. Now, people are dating on their own and single much later in life. So there’s a need to protect yourself. It’s all up to you. You have to be smart on your own, be your own community.”

That need for romantic self-defense — with its attendant anxieties — is what led Ms. Coder to create her courses and website in the first place. A former crime reporter, she realized her investigative journalism skills could help her more safely navigate a confusing, oft-disappointing, potentially dangerous dating landscape.

As Ms. Coder’s website puts it: Are you swooning over a closeted-serial killer? A shopaholic? A compulsive gambler? A liar? A gigolo?

“I realized that by dating, I was just meeting random people telling me what they wanted to tell me,” Ms. Coder said.

Many of her students, Ms. Coder said, are coming off divorces or relationships gone sour. One woman dated a man for months before discovering he was an alcoholic. Another woman was forced to file a restraining order against her ex-husband. A few women had realized their significant others were being unfaithful.

For her part, Ms. Coder once met a man on Craigslist whom she didn’t realize was married until their third date. She also dated a man who claimed he owned a transportation company — but actually owned a pedicab.

Moreover, Ms. Coder originally planned to write a book about romantic investigation, only to shelve the idea in favor of pursing a romantic relationship.

She subsequently discovered that her boyfriend was soliciting and seeing other women through Facebook.

“That was disheartening,” Ms. Coder said. “It chipped a little bit away at hope. I always hope one day I’ll get married to a great guy who would never do that to me. It’s a real roller coaster ride being single — ‘Oh, I found one,’ and then, ‘Oh, no, I didn’t.’ But it also lit my fire to make [InvestiDate] a success.”

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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