Experts offer advice on how to not get caught in online dating web

Published: Thursday, July 19 2012 7:00 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Online dating is a "great avenue for people to meet someone like themselves," said local dating coach and relationship therapist Alisa Goodwin Snell.

There are ways to avoid becoming a victim of sexual assault, rape and even heartbreak, she said. But even taking all the precautions, individuals can end up in situations they don’t really want to be in.

On Wednesday, felony rape charges were filed against 37-year-old Orem resident Gregory Peterson, a GOP activist who prosecutors say lured women to his cabin and sexually assaulted them. He was an active member on various dating websites, including those frequented by a large percentage of LDS men and women.

“Meeting in a public place is great, but it is not an absolute thing that you’ll be safe,” Snell said, adding that leaving a paper trail or letting a friend know what’s going on is an important part of playing it safe when meeting someone for the first time offline.

“Knowing your boundaries” is also something Snell, who met her husband online, teaches. She said predators tend to seek out weak or vulnerable populations, including those in religious groups who are often seen as more trusting.

“Wolves are attracted to lambs,” she said. “People who are in vulnerable situations will always be preyed on by perpetrators more than someone else.”

Layton resident Megan Nielsen, 34, has learned the hard way to be careful with online dating. She said she’s nearly been raped twice by men she met on an LDS-themed dating website.

“As women, we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, so we don’t say or do what needs to be done,” she said. In hindsight, she wishes she’d have run away, screamed or done whatever she could have to get away from the men who have taken advantage of her.

Nielsen, who is looking for husband and stepfather material, said she would purposefully look for men who had noted, like Peterson, that they had a current temple recommend, but in the end, she learned, “all the creeps just lie about it anyway.”

In March, the three largest providers of online dating websites, Match.com, eHarmony and Beverly Hills-based Spark Networks, each agreed to begin screening members for identity theft, financial scams and sexual predators, also adding a rapid reporting system to protect their members from abuse.

Spark owns LDSSingles.com, one of the sites Peterson used, and credits itself for taking “a multifaceted approach to creating and maintaining safe online communities.” The company offers dozens of niche dating websites, targeting various religious, cultural and ethnic groups, which a spokeswoman said “brings value to relationships.”

Online dating, which has gained popularity over the years, has resulted in numerous successful relationships, including one of every six in the last three years, according to a Reuters survey. More than 40 million Americans reported using an online dating service in 2011, spending more than $1 billion on dating website memberships. One in five have dated someone they met online.

“For those who play it wisely and approach it wisely, it tends to result in a lot more dates than you’d get from mingling within various social circles,” Snell said, adding that for many participants, there are more positive experiences than negative.

“It cuts out the wondering, the waiting and the ‘are we friends or are we more’ part of dating and you know what you both want going into it and that is really nice,” said 23-year-old Jeannette Snyder. A friend coaxed her to join an online dating service earlier this year “to meet people” after moving to Salt Lake and to break out of her typically reserved personality.

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