PANAMA CITY BEACH, FLORIDA // With as many as 40 million single Americans using online dating services or web-networking sites such as My Space to look for love, it would seem that there has never been an easier time to find a soulmate online.
But experts, law enforcement officials and private investigators warn that the world of internet romance is fraught with peril, ranging from liars to sexual predators and even murderers, who hide their motives behind seemingly innocuous virtual identities.
"When we pushed for more stringent background checks on online dating sites, one company told us the idea of asking for disclosure was creepy," said Bill Noble, the director of the Safer Online Dating Alliance.
"But what is actually creepy is having these creeps on your site." The numbers are worrisome - and horror stories abound.
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"There are a lot of people out there who get jazzed up by disguising themselves," he said, adding that nearly 100 per cent of his cases involved women being victimised by men.Industry experts say the website is unique in the field for warning on its home page that criminals and married men who come hunting "will be sorry if they do".Bill Warner, a Florida private investigator who offers on his website to "sort out the winners from the losers" for a flat fee of US9 (Dh620), says running background checks on potential internet dates now constitutes more than 50 per cent of his business."Usually the problem is that the man is married or he turns out to be one of these crazy stalker people that follows a woman for months," he said in a telephone interview.
In April a Boston medical student, Philip Markoff, dubbed the "Craigslist killer" by the media, was arrested and changed with murdering a masseuse who advertised on the popular website's erotic services section.Two months later Craigslist was hit with another scandal when it emerged that a North Carolina man used the site to hire a man to rape his wife while the husband watched.