The stigma may be nearly gone, but the danger is still there.
Online dating is now used by more than a quarter of people 18- to 24-years-old.
The KVUE Defenders found the dangers show in many forms.
While getting hurt may be part of the dating game, Ronda Kent said her last online match was too much.
“You think you have found the right person. It turns out that you have found possibly the worst person you could have said yes to,” said Kent.
Her “yes” was to a man named Curtis Coats, the third, who lived in Austin.
Kent said they met on Match.com, but the conversation quickly shifted to email. She didn’t know leaving an internet dating site was a big, red flag.
“We hardly went anywhere,” said Kent.
Kent says she fell in love, and around the sixth month, said yes to Coats’ marriage proposal.
“It was an excitement of I think I found the one,” she said.
She co-signed on a car, revealing her most personal information for the first time.
“He used my name, date of birth, to open accounts online,” said Kent.
Kent told police Coats racked up $1,384.50 in debt on her credit.
The car Kent co-signed fell into default. So, she filed a lawsuit against Coats.
In it, Kent claimed Coats “disregarded personal interest” and “damaged her credit.”
She said her credit took a 200 point hit.
Kent found out she wasn’t alone.
“I’m frantic,” said Elizabeth Davis of Austin. “I met Mr. Coats on a dating website.”
Davis said she dated Coats for six months after meeting on a website called Plenty of Fish. She said she ignored things that seemed odd.
“Everything that he advertised appeared to be the complete opposite,” said Davis.
She said an unauthorized charge showed up on her bank statement.
"I didn’t know what to do. I was baffled. I was hurt. I was angry, angry angry," said Davis.
She’s planning to file a police report.
The KVUE Defenders looked into Coats’ history.
The Defenders found a 2013 theft charge in Dallas, a Fraudulent Use of Identification charge that was reported by Ronda Kent, and a 2015 felony theft charge in Travis County.
Court records also show Coats filed for bankruptcy protection in 2013 and again in 2016. The Defenders found five eviction cases filed against Coats: One in Texas and four in Georgia since 2012.
Coats says he is innocent and knew nothing about Kent’s lawsuit over the car. He called the money used from Davis a "loan."
An emailed statement Coats said in part:
“I’ll start by saying that this is personally insulting to me, to be held up as an example of the dangers of online dating. I am not now, nor have I ever been a danger to anyone… I have NEVER entered into any relationship with the intention of taking money or stealing identity and I did not do that in either relationship you referenced. There are multiple women I can share their contact information with you who will attest to the opposite. They will share how they were spoiled, pampered, received gifts and money from me not the other way around… Not sure what the eviction cases have to do with online dating dangers, except to further try to paint me as a monster but you have eviction cases from more than 5 years ago and others that were solved between the landlord and myself. You site an eviction in Dallas, TX that took place in 2012 that was caused by a work transfer and the birth of my new son. I had to move prior to the end of the lease, the landlord filed paperwork, I negotiated a settlement and we moved. Nothing more to it than that.
"The evictions you bring up in Georgia were filed but negotiated by both sides prior to meeting with judges. The main factor was that I was in Georgia temporarily and still resided in Texas. Terms of the agreement, do not allow me to discuss any further, however both sides have moved on…. This (Unlawful Possession of ID) case is pending and I am not allowed to discuss details of it. All I can say if that I did not take or use any ones identification illegally, have the documentation to support that and look forward to getting my opportunity to prove that… I am not an online dating nightmare and the tenor of this story is incredibly biased. I am sorry that my relationships ended poorly with Ms. Davis and that Ms. Kent and I are now headed for court over an issue that really could have been decided privately, but it is what it is. When I met Ms. Kent, I was doing fine, unfortunately months after, things took a turn for the worse and Ms. Kent did help me financially. I agreed to pay her back… The same was true when I met Ms. Davis. I had fully rebounded and was doing very well and then hit a brief challenging patch. So now to be classified as this guy who is online prowling for women to get money from, when in every other relationship I have been in, I have been the one, buying the gifts, spending the money, taking care of their expenses – and I would advise you to speak with these women before you run your story for some semblance of balance – just leaves me speechless but again, I know how all this came about and why.”
How this happened can happen to anyone, according to research we found.
“the sites are set up that make you believe you can let your guard down,” said Daniel Kirschner, an attorney in Chicago who represented a woman in a lawsuit against an online dating site.
Kirschner argued the site allowed an accused rapist to continue using the site for dates. The case was settled.
“It’s an easy platform because the trust is there,” said Kirschner.
Online dating changes the psychology in how we date, according to Eli Finkle a researcher from Northwestern University.
“One of the major assumptions is that we can look at online profiles and discern who is compatible,” said Finkle in an online video about his research.
Those assumptions can make us skip important get-to-know-you steps.
“It’s been a living hell for me. It’s made me second-guess everything about me,” said Davis.
Davis wants her life back.
“I’m trying to get back to who I am and I love who I am,” said Davis as she began to cry.
These wounds may not be fresh, but the healing hasn’t stopped.
“You want to protect yourself at all costs, even if that means being alone. You don’t want to risk going through this again,” said Kent. “Doing this interview is a double-edge sword. It’s great in that if my story can help somebody help, then great.
“Keep your communications on the platform and really get to know users online/using the app before meeting them in person. Bad actors often push people to communicate off the platform immediately. It’s up to you to research and do your due diligence,” says Match.com on their website.
The stats on actions taken against complaints isn’t public.
Local police do not index crimes based on how a victim and suspect met.
So, we’re all in the dark as to how often this happens.
The FBI warns “romance scams” dealing with foreign perpetrators is on the rise, and has the following recommendations for people who meet someone online.
TAP HERE for additional information from the FBI.
“At Match, the safety and well-being of our community is a top priority. We understand that sophisticated criminals prey on individuals in every corner of the web, and we diligently address safety on the site and app by reviewing each photo and profile on the site, checking subscribers against the national sex offender registry and using sophisticated technology to identify possible fraudulent behavior. While incidents like this between individuals who meet on Match are extremely rare, Match has positively changed the lives of millions of people through the relationships and marriages it has sparked, but it is still important for people to protect themselves by exercising common sense and prudence with the people they meet, whether on a dating site, through an acquaintance, at a bar or by any other means.”
For the Plenty of Fish terms of service, click here.
The National Cyber Security Alliance has more information on how we can stay safe online. TAP HERE for additional information.
To report any criminal activity online, contact the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center.