Online dating: Avoid the pitfalls, from pricey matchmakers to scammers

From DNA testing to personalized matchmaking, there's no shortage of services promising to help you find love — for a price.

But for those of us looking to go a cheaper route, there's a solution: the internet.

But can a formula determine whether two people will have a successful long-term relationship? The research seems to say no.

According to market research company IBISWorld, the online dating industry made $153 million in Canada in 2014. Services like eHarmony and Match.com promise to find you the best potential matches based on complex and tightly guarded algorithms.

Seeking a soulmate?

Take the 2012 article Online Dating: A Critical Analysis From the Perspective of Psychological Science.

The study's authors sifted through decades of research about what makes people romantically compatible.

"It is very very difficult, if not impossible, to predict initial chemistry using variables assessed before two people meet each other," said study co-author Paul Eastwick, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

"The algorithms are not scientifically valid and are extremely unlikely to generate compatible matches."

In other words, matchmaking sites simply can't account for how two people will get along in person — chemistry, if you will.

No better than meeting in a bar

And, as it turns out, what we find attractive in a profile doesn't sync up with what we go for in the real world.

"People have elaborate laundry lists of qualities they think they want in a partner, and they like online dating profiles that fit this laundry list," Eastwick said.

"However, upon a face-to-face meeting, most of this list goes out the window — people instead rely on their gut-level reaction to another person."

The other problem, according to the research, is the emphasis placed on clients' similarities.

"To be sure, similarity on some dimensions, like race and religion, does predict relationship well-being," two of the study's co-authors wrote in The New York Times.

"However, the vast majority of people mate with demographically similar partners anyway, so such findings aren't especially useful in helping dating sites narrow a client's pool of potential partners."

The Times piece goes on to say, "None of this suggests that online dating is any worse a method of meeting potential romantic partners than meeting in a bar or on the subway. But it's no better either."

Now what?

So an algorithm isn't smart enough to figure out if two strangers are soulmates. But the sites do have their benefits.

"Mainly, online dating sites give you more options beyond your existing social network that you wouldn't have had otherwise," Eastwick said.

They also weed out people who don't want a long-term relationship, or those with whom you're basically incompatible — say, people with vastly different educational backgrounds or religious beliefs.

So, how should you approach online dating?

- Limit yourself to a reasonable number of candidates in a set time period.

- Don't put too much emphasis on people who seem most desirable on paper. Keep an open mind.

- Emphasize what's important to you, not what others say is important.

- Craft your profile carefully, highlighting what sets you apart.

- Consider the limitations of matchmaking services before making a financial commitment.

Beware of scammers

If you're using a free service, like OkCupid or Plenty of Fish, you could fall prey to one of many sophisticated crime syndicates that specialize in getting you to part with your money.

Daniel Williams with the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre said most victims are over 40, fresh out of a long-term relationship and haven't dated for decades.

"They're vulnerable, trusting, emotionally fragile, and the scammers seem to pick up on that from a mile away," Williams said.

"We all think we're unique, but really we're not. We all want the same things — to love and be loved. The scammers are nasty, heartless, ruthless people. But they're good at what they do."

The scams

And the stories are all too often the same.

They work in engineering. They're from your city but working abroad. They run into problems — maybe an incident on the job site, or an accident involving a teenage son. And they need your money.

"The scammers are so experienced in what they do, because they do what they do on such a massive scale," Williams said. "They're running the same scam with 1,000 people at the same time."

If you don't pony up the cash, the con artist could use your racy photos or adult-themed conversations to extort the money from you.

"You should be sharing only information you'd be happy to share on a 35-foot billboard above your home," Williams said.

Verify, verify, verify

The scams are easy enough to dodge — all it takes is 15 minutes.

For starters, plug their emails into a search engine.

"The bad guys do not reinvent the wheel," he said. "They're more profit-driven than anyone ... It's how much money can we make, so how little can we put out?"

Scammers can counterfeit anything from dating site profiles to photos, email addresses, even seemingly official documents. So Google everything.

"There's no way you can verify what's on the other end of a keyboard," Williams said.

"If you're at the point where you think, 'I want to share my innermost secrets with this person,' you should meet the person within three days. And if not, head for the hills."

Scammed? Report it

Scams often go unreported because victims are too embarrassed to come forward.

"People don't want to admit that they've been had, and the emotional damage in a romance scam ... it's a type where people feel devastated for years afterwards," Williams said.

"It really can be heartbreaking."

Williams urges victims to file a report with their local police department and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.