Online dating can be misleading as it is often used for hookups rather than for serious dating. Even its name is false, in a sense. Messaging someone on Tinder, Bumble, OKCupid, or whatever app you want to use is not dating, it’s talking.

I’m not saying that you won’t be able to find a good match online, or that it won’t lead somewhere meaningful, but these dating sites are more of a way to meet people and facilitate that first step in dating rather than actually date virtually.

It’s always hard to tell a person’s personality over a screen, despite their self-analysis over text. There’s no way to tell individual idiosyncrasies until you actually meet them. Online dating, in some ways, doesn’t even perform the first step in dating, but instead leads you to the first step. You have to meet the person face-to-face to actually tell if you’d like to see them again.

Online dating has grown in popularity and its stigma has lessened over the years, but that doesn’t mean that men and women alike don’t get duped from a potential date. Dating online can be dangerous, and there are a few things you can do to protect yourself, including the regular precautions anyone should take no matter how you met the person.

First dates should always be at a public place and never at the other person’s apartment or house. Give yourself time to find out if they are sketchy or not. You can always start out at a public place and move elsewhere. Tell a friend where you’re going and what time you expect to be back; if things change, there’s always a handy smartphone to update them with the new plan.

As for online safety, just be smart and don’t give personal data like address, email, or phone number. Check the person’s profile photo for fishy Photoshop details and cross-check that photo with a Google or Facebook search.

Trust your instincts. If something seems wrong for no apparent reason, walk away. Your instincts are probably warning you of something fishy, whether or not you are conscious of it. The same goes for when you actually meet the person. If something seems off, there may be a reason to trust that sense. Also, if you don’t click well with a person, you may not want to invest the time anyway.

Think of online dating as a little boost to get to the first step in dating someone: meeting them in person. Trust your instincts and be smart about your virtual world, just like you would for your physical world.

Reach columnist Taylor McAvoy at Twitter: @TaylorMcAvoy105

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