Online dating became popular with singles in the 1990s, but within the past few years it has become the norm for many generations seeking to find a mate. Thanks to the rise in technology and social media use by those over 50, seniors are now a growing segment in the online dating world.
Interviews with nine Springfield-area seniors in their 50s through 70s confirm that there are many benefits to using online dating websites designed for “fishing in a pond that is already stocked” with others interested in the same objective. However, recent developments related to computer security, privacy, identity theft and fraud have had an overwhelming impact on the success of those looking for romance and companionship.
While most of the popular dating websites advertise that you can “get started for free,” in actuality you cannot interact with others on the site, send them messages or see the profiles of those who are interested in you, until you sign up and pay with a credit card. Prices range from $10 to $20 a month.
However, often the fine print states that users’ credit cards will be automatically billed at the end of each commitment period cycle, without further notice to them. So, if the user decides to discontinue the service, it is her job to struggle through the voicemail maze in an attempt to have the account closed 2-4 weeks in advance of the renewal date. After trying unsuccessfully to cancel their accounts, some users had to resort to contacting their credit card companies.
Can there be unexpected benefits in sitting down to create the personal profile required to get started on an online dating site? Users report that this exercise can provide an opportunity for acknowledgement of the personal accomplishments, insights and maturity seniors have gained over the years. By writing just a couple of sentences, including name, gender, location, age, email address and basic dating preferences, a user, or “member,” can have the immediate gratification of browsing through other members’ profiles.
This is where it gets tricky though.
Yes, members can browse from the comfort of the couch, but it can take hours and hours to wade through all the profiles. Users described other frustrating aspects of dating websites, like purporting to allow members to select preferences for others who are, say, located within a 30-mile radius of their location, but which don’t actually work. For reasons of overburdened technology or human error, members are often presented with great-looking prospects in their “daily matches,” who just happen to be hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
As one 62-year-old woman who uses OurTime and Match said, “Even when you go to great lengths to be specific about your needs and preferences, the platforms seem to either ignore what you’ve selected or the algorithms that are supposed to filter out smokers if you hit the button for non-smokers, for example, often just don’t work.”
Most adults understand that there are varying personal safety risks in bars, clubs, parks, restaurants or other places you might meet someone live. However, it may be a little more difficult for seniors to grasp the very present risks on dating sites, which purport to have safety features. Even the advertised 24/7 customer support, extensive help pages, SSL encryption technology, and the best of intentions to verify and provide background checks on every member, the failure rate is high and the dating success statistics are not great.
What’s more, dating sites, where people volunteer details about their personal lives, are a natural habitat for scammers, according to Doug Shadel, head of AARP’s fraud watch team and state director of AARP Washington. The risk is that participants can manipulate how they present themselves, creating “idealized avatars” that elicit more trust and intimacy than their real-life selves. As less technologically experienced seniors see the written text and read it over and over again, their hopeful optimistic thinking can make the fake seem more real.
Many of the dating site users who offered insights for this article were dismayed to learn that the terms and conditions in the membership contracts they signed are how people get conned. Since SeniorPeopleMeet.com gains the rights to any information users post on their site, for example, they can freely translate, change and reuse every message written – and even post users’ profiles and photos on other dating networks.
Dating sites appear to be aware of the role they play in romance fraud. Yet they refuse to take any responsibility, according to blogger Christopher Ambler, a principal software architect at GoDaddy.com. He has found that dating websites know that they have a problem with fake accounts, yet they refuse to curb this because increased traffic to the site makes them money.
Our experienced daters shared warning signs that can protect users from becoming victims. Be aware of scripted words that present hard-to-believe scenarios, cobbled together with poor grammar, unusual syntax and inappropriate sentiments. (“My wife tragically died within her 30th birthday,, driving on the sports car that I had meant to her present, but our fear infant daughter in this accident was uninjured.”)
Another warning sign is a member who seems to forget what was discussed previously or uses “Honey,” “Dearest” or “Babe” to address someone they have just met online. Finally, limit online exchanges to very brief information, and seek a face-to-face meeting in a public place to determine if there is a real person behind the profile who might be compatible.
As one area single who has been using dating websites on and off for two years said, “The miracle isn’t that people who meet on dating sites can find companionship and fall into sustainable relationships, but that they have the time and persistence to weed through all the fake profiles and fraudulent photos to even meet real people at all.”
Catherine O’Connor is a public historian and independent journalist who retired from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, where she advised Illinois communities on local government community revitalization strategies, programs and incentives. She lives in Springfield and is currently engaged in a special media outreach project with the American Institute of Architects, Illinois.