Sunday, February 8, 1998
Net love: Dangerous Liaisons

BY CHARLES BREWER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Looking for love, Bob turned to the Internet.

Cruising online chat rooms, he struck up a conversation with a woman. They clicked and an online relationship began. They met regularly online and exchanged phone numbers.

But things didn't work out. The woman became obsessed, Bob says. In their online chats, he had told her where he worked, even the town in which he grew up. The woman began calling him at work, at his home, at his company's home office. She even threatened to contact his parents.

Bob, who lives in the Cincinnati area, now says he was naive to put so much trust in an online relationship.

He's not the only person who's had an online romance turn bad.

Too much, too soon

''The problem is people reveal too much too quickly'' when engaging in online romance, said Dr. Marshall Jung, professor of social work at California State University-San Bernadino and co-author of ''Romancing the Net,'' a guide to online romances http://www.romancesite.com.

''People on the other end don't fully represent themselves,'' he said. ''To assume that (they do) is an illusion.''

Dr. Jung says to proceed cautiously with an online relationship.

''There are a lot of weirdos out there,'' says Michael A. Banks, a local writer and author of ''Web Psychos, Stalkers and Pranksters: How to Protect Yourself in Cyberspace'' http://w3.one.net/~banks/psycho.htm.

''The perceived anonymity provided by the online world makes some people do things that they would never do in real life,'' he said.

In cyberspace, nothing is what it seems to be. On a busy night at America Online, more than 15,000 chat areas are active, and visitors use anonymous ''handles.'' Much of the chat has a sexual overtone. Anyone using a feminine screen name will be repeatedly invited to ''go private'' - go to a private chat area for a more personal conversation.

''It's a warning sign, when people reveal too much too quickly,'' Dr. Jung said. ''It's easy to get caught up in the intimacy of it. It's very exciting, and they get sucked up by emotions.''

Fantasy or reality?

One problem is separating fantasy from reality. Many cyberlovers are married and looking for online titillation. Others are lonely singles who might be emotionally vulnerable.

Mr. Banks cites a Chicago woman who twice got involved with married men online. The men would fly into the city on a ''business trip,'' spend the weekend, then disappear.

Others have been cheated when their online lovers ask for money for a plane ticket to meet. After the money is sent, the person evaporates.

Mr. Banks offers the following tips to anyone seeking love online:

Proceed slowly, and don't give out information that could be used to find you. For example, you can reveal what you do for a living without telling where you work.

Be honest. It's foolish to hide flaws or pretend to be someone else.

Be skeptical. Check out a new friend with other online acquaintances.

Women might want to make the first phone call, but disable caller ID or the ''callback'' feature first.

If you decide to meet, do so in a public place and bring a friend.

''I also tell people to watch that you're not projecting your desires and needs onto your online friend,'' Mr. Banks said. ''I've seen people who wanted so much for the other person to be perfect that they ended up devastated.''

Before exchanging personal information one should research the other person online. Numerous search sites, such as Four11 ) or Bigfoot http://www.bigfoot.com can help you find names and addresses. Look for postings on newsgroups by the person by searching DejaNews http://www.dejanews.com.

''People leave tracks online,'' Mr. Banks said.

All these warnings shouldn't dissuade someone from using the Internet to find others, including possible mates. And Dr. Jung emphasises that the Internet shouldn't be blamed for the bad things that can happen online.

''It's not the vehicle, it's the people that use the vehicle,'' he said. ''There are people who are reckless in their lives, and they use the Internet recklessly.''

''People who do that are in trouble already.''

Send e-mail to Charles Brewer at CBrewer@enquirer.com.

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