Valentine's Day is just a few weeks away, and some Christians are turning to online dating sites in search of romance. But how can they, especially considering recent online relationship hoaxes that have been brought to the public's attention, safely navigate the online dating scene and give themselves a good chance at making a true connection?
Ashley Reccord, community manager for ChristianMingle.com, says online relationship hoaxes – such as the one involving Manti Te'o or those detailed on MTV's "Catfish: The TV Show" – haven't negatively impacted business for her company. In fact, she says, this time of year the dating website usually experiences a spike in traffic.
"While our business continues to thrive throughout the year, we do see an influx in traffic around the start [of] ... the holidays that runs through Valentine's Day," Reccord told The Christian Post via email on Tuesday. "We attribute higher traffic to the New Year's resolution crowd as well as to singles wanting someone special to share the holidays with, as it's the time of year when you want to spend time with family and loved ones."
More than three million users joined ChristianMingle in 2012, she says, bringing the website's total number of members up to more than nine million.
"Catfish" is a term that refers to a person who creates a false identity through social media sites and uses that identity to form deceitful relationships with others online, according to MTV.
"Catfish: The TV Show," which follows Nev Schulman and Max Joseph as they uncover the truth behind suspicious online relationships, has demonstrated how these relationships often end in heartache when emotionally invested people discover they have not been talking to the person they thought they were.
Perhaps the most well-known catfish is 22-year-old Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who allegedly tricked University of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o into believing he was in a relationship with a fictitious woman named Lennay Kekua. Te'o told ESPN that he realized it was a hoax only after Kekua, whom he believed had died of leukemia, called him sometime after her supposed death.
ChristianMingle takes certain steps to protect its clients from fake profiles, Reccord says. The company manually reviews all profile text and photos submitted by its members, and has developed other tools designed to eliminate fraudulent activity on the site.
Automated fraud detection systems are in place to analyze data submitted by members, ChristianMingle's "About Online Dating" guide states. Usernames also help people to maintain their anonymity until they feel comfortable sharing their real name and other personal information.
Lisa Anderson, director of young adults for Focus on the Family, has used online dating sites and says users should go into the experience with a "game plan," which can help keep them to stay safe, save them time and find their best match.
Part of this game plan should include asking a mentor, family member or friend to serve as an accountability partner, she says. Accountability partners can help point out any "red flags," or potential problem issues, and may even discourage people with bad intentions from trying to further connect with those searching for a real relationship if the accountability partner's presence is disclosed to them.
"If someone just wants to scam you, or someone wants to just waste your time or get into something that's inappropriate, they're not going to do it when they know that they have someone else to be accountable to," said Anderson.
She also says it is important for people who connect online to meet face-to-face early in the relationship, which also means the person should be geographically accessible so a meeting can be arranged.
"The other thing is to recognize that you're on an online site, but there's no real such thing as online dating," she said. "It's online meeting. Eventually you have to take that relationship into real time and to real space. You can't just say, 'Oh yeah, well we dated online for six months and then got married.' I mean, that's just not real."
Over the course of three months Anderson spoke on the phone with a man she met online, she says. He lived out of state, and once she finally met him in person it quickly became apparent to her that they weren't a good match for each other. If she could do it again, she says she would have scheduled a meeting with him much earlier. For safety's sake, the first meeting should happen at a neutral location, and neither party should pick the other up at home.
Christians looking for a relationship online should also seek good answers about the other person's faith, says Anderson. The importance of their faith should be easily discernible, and much prying shouldn't be needed to get straightforward answers about it.
Online daters should also be aware that not everyone has the same values, even among the users on Christian dating sites. She once met a man on a Christian dating site and, after doing a Google search of his username, found out that he had ordered pornography off of Ebay.
"People need to not say, 'Oh, because I met this guy on a Christian site he's totally legit and he's probably a pastor.' I mean, honestly, like anyone can go on any site at this point and claim anything," she said.
One of the first questions that should be asked, Anderson says, is, "What is your view on premarital sex?" Not everyone on Christian dating sites will say they want to wait until marriage.
In order to avoid hoaxes or people who are not "in it to win it," Anderson suggests avoiding people who were lazy when putting together their profile. If a profile seems incomplete or contains grammar and spelling errors, it may suggest that the person isn't trying very hard or could be a fake.
Men who are looking for a date should share something substantive about themselves, and always be honest about who they truly are. Women should avoid being pushy to meet with someone too soon, and should avoid getting too invested in a relationship too quickly.
Anderson manages Boundless, FOTF's young adult ministry, and shares other online dating "don'ts" for both men and women on The Line blog.