When we meet a potential love interest in person, we’re taught to look for certain red flags—like being rude to the waiter, calling incessantly or not at all, or claiming that his favorite book is The Da Vinci Code. When we’re choosing potential dates online, though, we sometimes have little more than a picture and a paragraph to go on. But even before you’ve agreed to meet someone, there may be warning signs of impending dating disaster … you just have to know what to look for. Our best online dating advice: before you respond to that next wink or personal message, start watching out for these red flags.
1. A Picture That’s Worth Less Than a Thousand Words
It’s normal to be suspicious of people whose pictures are blurry or far away, full of other random people, or purposely vague. If a guy’s profile is full of shots of him in sunglasses, dressed up for Halloween, or in miniature in front of the Great Wall of China, it’s hard not to suspect that he’s hiding something. It’s great conversation fodder when someone displays snapshots of himself on vacation or out with friends, but it’s reasonable to expect at least one clear picture of his face. “I gave a few guys the benefit of the doubt,” says Lindsay from Houston. “I thought maybe they didn’t have a good camera and really couldn’t find a decent picture of themselves.” Sean from Brooklyn says, “There was one girl I wished I’d met, but she had her back to the camera in her picture, which I thought was way too much of a gamble.”
2. The Date-O-Matic 1000
If you receive an impersonal message that seems oddly like a form letter, it probably is. Some practiced daters have a standard letter they send to every single person they find even mildly attractive. Someone who truly wants to get to know you will take the time to write a personalized message responding to specific items in your profile, not send a generic cut-and-paste letter saying, “Hey girl, I saw your profile and was intrigued …” Think about the hundreds of other people who’ve gotten the same letter, and decide whether you’re willing to accept only the barest minimum of effort.
3. Bait and Switch
Maggie from New York City specified in her profile that she wanted to meet someone between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five who lived in Manhattan, so receiving emails from sixty-five-year-old men who lived a hundred miles away was not amusing. Someone who blatantly disregards what you’ve stated you’re looking for is simply wasting your time. If that didn’t turn her off, then the subsequent emails from the same men asking why she was an ageist definitely did.
4. I’m the Boss of You
It’s okay to state some basic requirements, such as whether you’re willing to date someone who smokes or who has children. What’s not okay is to expect potential suitors to conform to a long list of demands. If you see a profile that specifies a required height/weight, salary, or supermodel looks, or includes domineering phrases like “I need …” or “I won’t tolerate …,” consider whether you could ever live up to this person’s impossible standards. Dating is a negotiation, and we don’t always get everything we want. Getting involved with someone who’s so demanding from the start is sure to end in disappointment. “Nobody gets everything on his or her list,” says Heather in San Francisco. “You’re not setting a good first impression by acting bossy in your profile.”
5. The Silent Treatment
No one expects to meet in person after just a couple of emails, but if you’ve been corresponding regularly, it’s expected that you’ll take your relationship offline. If the person doesn’t even want to talk on the phone or meet for coffee, it’s okay to wonder what his motivations are. He might just be nervous, but he could also be someone other than who he says he is.
6. Offline Outrage
If your first verbal or in-person interaction with a date is a drunk-dial or a booty call, consider that an inauspicious omen. “I exchanged phone numbers with a guy, and when he called me to set up a date, he was drunk,” says Lindsay. “I should’ve taken that as a sign, but I figured it was Friday night, so I shouldn’t judge. When we met up in person, he was a [jerk] and kept asking me if I ‘liked to party.’” So a good rule of thumb is: if your date is drunk the first time you talk to him on the phone, end it there.
7. Plans on, Plans Off
A person who constantly makes plans and then cancels them, or who can talk on the phone only at certain times of the day, either has an incredibly demanding job or is not quite as single as she claims. It’s sad, but many married people troll dating sites, either looking for some action on the side or just seeking validation. If your date instructs you never to call on evenings and weekends or will call you only from a restricted number, there’s a good chance that she’s trying to keep you a secret.
8. Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire
You’ve done it—you’ve found a person online who seems to be perfect for you. That is, until you receive a message or phone call confessing that the picture he sent wasn’t really him, and that he’s actually five years older than he claimed, but now that you’ve gotten to know him, that shouldn’t be a problem, right? Believe it or not, people actually try this. The intent is to trick potential dates into falling for their “inner beauty,” but all this ruse really reveals about someone is that he’s a liar. People who employ this tactic generally aren’t tender souls who are afraid of rejection; they’re just not confident enough to be themselves. Some brazen daters even post contradictory information right on their profile (“I’m really forty, even though I listed my age as thirty-five”), as justification for trying to show up in more searches for “men over six feet tall,” or “women under forty.” Presenting oneself in the best light is one thing, but outright lying is quite another.
Online dating was supposed to make it easier to meet and screen potential dates, but sometimes it seems as if it’s just added one more layer of effort that requires you to filter out the crazies to get to the good ones. But the good ones are indeed out there, and luckily, the bad ones usually reveal themselves early in the process. Watching out for these warning signs can make it easier to take a relationship from email to in-person. But once you’re at your first dinner date, you’re on your own.
Check out our relationship panel's advice on how to write the perfect online profile: