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Background-checking a first date beats winding up dead

Trust, but Verify

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The end of love — that way madness lies. Just ask a private investigator.

As it happens, my husband Hal is a PI, and so am I. A born diplomat, Hal often finds himself in the role of informal counselor to scorned and lovelorn clients. At all hours, plaintive marimba notes proclaim a litany of despairing texts detailing woman's inhumanity to man (and vice versa): You won't believe what (s)he's done now! Indeed, it defies credulity what seemingly rational people (often from tony ZIP codes) will do when romance jumps the track.

If Hal and I have learned anything from digging through the detritus of failed relationships, it's that there's all manner of unspeakable misery behind the beveled-glass doors, and a multitude of sad little secrets spouses keep from each other — from covert drug deals to affairs too hapless for reality TV.

It's little wonder that some folks decline to join the fray. Marriage rates in America keep dropping, and the prospect of dating — especially online — in a two-degrees-of-separation town can seem almost ... undignified. Not to mention utterly discouraging, and sometimes, downright dangerous.

That's why Alice Sullivan, a 32-year-old writer and editor, has a message for online dating services: I'm just not that into you. She's planning to let her account lapse when it expires ... right around Valentine's Day. "At this point, it's totally just entertainment for me," she says. "Because I don't think anything is going to come of it, except for really awkward stories." Not awkward, as in long pauses over lattes. Awkward, as in guys texting her penis pictures. As in her date urinating in his pants during dinner.

As in convicted sex offender.

She met him through an online dating service and went out with him twice. "He was handsome," she says. But something didn't feel quite right to her, something she couldn't define.

And then, after their second date, he confessed: "He'd been busted in a raid," Sullivan says, "because he had sent naked pictures of himself to [a] supposed 14-year-old." Who, fortunately, turned out to be a police officer.

"Pretty much like To Catch a Predator," she adds.

New York writer Maria Coder wants to arm thrice-burned daters like Sullivan with information that can make new love feel a little less blind. A former crime reporter, Coder started thinking about ways the research techniques she was using every day could help people protect themselves from scammers and predators.

And then one day, she found herself applying those techniques in her own life. It troubled her that her boyfriend minimized Facebook whenever she walked by. Applying some simple sleuthing, she discovered that he was meeting and sexting dozens of women on Facebook, and even arranging liaisons with some of them. "I was totally devastated," she says.

Energized by that experience, Coder launched a series of workshops that coached prospective daters how to analyze Facebook and online dating profiles with a critical eye, search for criminal and employment records, and interpret conversations and body language. And she wrote a book outlining those simple investigative tools, called InvestiDate: How To Investigate Your Date, which comes out this month.

"You want to pay attention to the little things," she suggests. "Think of yourself as a detective or a doctor putting together all the important facts and symptoms so you can draw an accurate conclusion."

Coder advises people beginning a relationship to pay attention to gut feelings and heebie-jeebies — that intangible sense that something isn't right — and follow them where they lead. If she never picks up the phone in the evenings, find out where she has lived (zabasearch.com) and check those county courthouses for a marriage certificate. If he claims to be a lawyer but won't cough up a company name, check trade databases (martindale.com). And Coder details scores of tools that search criminal and sex offender records, address and reverse cell phone listings, and property records.

Coder says several common scams are currently making their way around the online dating world. In one, scammers pose as lonely soldiers and initiate a long-con romance, gradually transitioning from sweet nothings to escalating crises that supposedly require large funds transfers. One widow wired a half-million dollars — her entire life savings — to a phantom major-general.

One technique Coder uses to weed out potential con artists is to create two accounts on dating sites — your actual profile and a very different "control" profile. She's looking for people who respond to both accounts but change facts about themselves, like age or profession. "Whenever someone lies about anything, I disregard them," she says. And she counsels her students to scour online profiles for contradictions and warning signs. Do photos jibe with a person's professed hobbies? Does a person claim a fat bank account and huge estate? Red flags.

Most important of all, Coder says, daters should keep careful records of all correspondence with suitors, let friends know when and where they're going on a date, and make sure a close friend has password access to their computers.

Healthy skepticism aside, Coder insists she hasn't given up on romance. "I'm definitely still capable of being impressed by someone," she laughs. She just believes in clear-eyed watchfulness, for herself and for her clients.

"Better safe than dead," she says.

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