When Los Angeles resident Jessica Walters turned 21, her mother gave her a wad of cash and a mission: "You need to get on JDate," she said, of the online Jewish singles site.
Meeting people on the Internet was nothing new to Walters, who had spent her high-school years talking to people all over the world in chat rooms. "I remember feeling like people were pretty straightforward about themselves when we'd chat," she said. "They didn't seem to be pretending they were something they weren't."
So when the first guy who contacted her through JDate revealed on his profile that he was only 5-foot-3, Walters assumed he was telling the truth.
"I'm 5-foot-5 so I thought it wasn't that big a difference," said Walters. "I thought I could deal with it."
The pair made a date to hang out at his house. But when Walters arrived, the 30-year-old who came to the door resembled an Oompa Loompa. "He was maybe 4-foot-11," Walters said. To be polite, she spent hours with him playing Trivial Pursuit -- a friend was supposed to give her a "rescue call" but then forgot. When Walters finally wrangled her way out of his place, her date presented her with a sweatband he had made out of a tube sock and a teddy-bear decal. "It's awful," said Walters, now 24. "But I haven't thrown it out. I keep it as a reminder of how bad online dating can be."
Fortunately for Walters, earlier this year she found a way to stave off future dating dramas. She started using TrueDater.com, one of a handful of new Web sites that promise to make it easier to get an honest assessment of a potential paramour -- before you waste an afternoon playing board games with him or her.
With the explosive growth of Internet dating -- last year 21.8 million people browsed online dating sites, and one out of every 10 Americans who use the Internet posted a personal ad online -- it's not surprising that sites are emerging that help people vet their dates and do more sophisticated probing than a simple Google or Friendster search. Yet for all its potential benefits, rating sites can feel a little like an idea hatched over a bong. "Dude, what if after you go on a date with a girl that's a real dog, you could warn everyone else in the world who might eventually want to go out with her!"
At TrueDater.com, those who have met the three-dimensional person behind an online profile review him or her, not unlike seller evaluations on eBay or customer reviews on Amazon. "She claims to be 44, actually is 51. Uses people, then discards them. Thinks she's smarter than God," read one recent post on the site. Another read: "If he doesn't get his way, he'll throw a tantrum, complete with mundane name calling and finger pointing." All that's missing is a few stars and a tally of total satisfied customers.
"We're fostering a movement in truth in online dating," said Mark Geller, 36, who co-founded Los Angeles-based TrueDater in January. (TrueDater allows users to read reviews of people with personal profiles on Nerve.com, which is hosted by Salon, Match.com, JDate.com, American Singles and Yahoo Personals, and doesn't charge for the service.) "It's not about reviewing someone as a human being, it's about reviewing the truthfulness of the profile. It's basically answering the question: Is what you see what you get?"
Dishonesty, it seems, is a quiet thwarter of online love. According to a poll conducted on TrueDater, 34 percent of the site's users said that the biggest problem with online dating was people lying about their weight; 13 percent said it was lying about marital status. Fibs about income and height were also top offenders.
Geller's goal is to get these numbers down; he estimates 100,000 people have used the site in hopes of minimizing their chances of meeting a dud. "You spend a few weeks talking to someone or e-mailing, and then you meet him at a Starbucks and maybe he's nothing like what he said he was," he said. "And it makes you feel like you've just wasted time."
After a lot of wasted time -- with men who posted fake pictures and one who said he was single but was really married -- Natanya Levioff, a 32-year-old who works at an education consulting firm in Washington, D.C., has become a TrueDater devotee. "There's a lot of temptation to lie or exaggerate with online dating," she said. "I've had people tell me they're 35, but they're actually 50. 'But I look 35!' they'll tell me. One guy I contacted was really good-looking with black hair and light eyes. Kind of rugged guy-next-door look. I was like, 'Wow, he's cute!' Well, it turns out the guy was using a stock image and I saw another guy a few weeks later using the same one."
On a similar site, LemonDate.com, users are charged $9.95 a month to browse dater "reviews," but they have to know what site a person is registered on as well as their precise screen name and state of residence. They can also sign up for LemonDate personals, a dating forum that stresses truthfulness.
"I'd completely stopped using online dating for a while because I felt like people were so dishonest," says LemonDater Denise Wagoner, a bookkeeper in Irvine, Calif. Wagoner had good reasons for abstaining. Five years ago, she uprooted her life in Albuquerque, N.M., and moved to Colorado Springs, Colo., to be closer to a man she'd met on American Singles and had been dating for two years. Weeks after the move, she learned he was engaged to someone else, and had five other girlfriends, to boot.
"But then I found LemonDate," she said. "I'm an honest person and have nothing to hide -- what I've described myself to be is exactly who men have met. If I'd had something like this, maybe some other woman could have warned me not to fall for the man I fell for."
A handful of other sites approach the whole business of finding an honest date in the same way they approach, say, finding a good plumber. At the San Francisco-centric NiftyGuy.com, people can write reviews of pretty much anything, be it a manicurist in the Tenderloin, a dentist in Berkeley, or a date -- either an online one or the real flesh-and-bones kind.
"This guy thinks inviting you over to his house is a 'date,'" writes "Alethia" about someone named Simon in San Francisco. "He'll show you photo albums of him and his friends, watch TV [with you and give you] a wimpy massage."
She also describes a University of Southern California student as "stalker-esque" because he sent her an instant message complimenting her looks upon seeing her in the Face Book, an online college community. In retaliation, she posted his full name on NiftyGuy -- middle name included.
And herein lies one of the problems with rating sites. How can you separate truth tellers from those who are simply seeking revenge? While not as blatant as the Dick List or CheaterNews.com, any rating site can be used by an angry -- and possibly spurned -- dater who wants to make sure his or her ex maintains a healthy post-breakup diet of ice cream and tears. When the USC student found out that he had been flamed on NiftyGuy, he asked the site's founders to take down the post. So far they haven't. "I expressed my disapproval of having my full name on the site without due respect to my individual privacy," he said in an e-mail. "In principle there are two things I object to on these sites: They don't take appropriate steps to ensure individual privacy and the reviews seem to be out of hate not honesty."
I know these issues well. Last summer, a friend and I started the Web site Breakup News with an eye to reporting the facts of a breakup, the way wedding announcements often report how a couple fell in love. But it wasn't long before our readers were issuing warnings about their exes and posting their Match.com IDs, photos, and in some cases phone numbers (which we removed).
"Beware, ladies, beware," wrote one 19-year-old of her ex. "He's a lying, cheating, dirty loser and no girl should even think about giving him the time of day." One man said his former wife gave him herpes. Another announced that her ex was a closeted Republican. "I was hoping he was being ironic, because he was ridiculously good looking," she wrote. And another woman divulged that her ex had a third nipple. We made no attempt to sort the liars from the truth tellers, because, alas, there's no site you can go to check the veracity of someone who says she's telling the truth about a liar.
We regularly receive e-mails from men and women around the country who ask us to remove the information their ex has posted, and we usually do. They inevitably find the site by Googling their own names; many of them are single, and chances are that people with whom they've set up dates have Googled them as well and have then called to cancel. It's a frighteningly possible answer to the age-old question: Why can't I ever meet anyone?
Even some non-dating sites are getting into the ratings game. Opinity.com and Trufina.com, both of which focus on business transactions, recently added free dating verification services. Opinity, started by an amateur photographer who wanted to get better information on people selling camera equipment online, will tell you your potential date's "reputation" on Amazon and eBay, just in case you decide you want to buy a used Cuisinart from him or her. At Trufina credit reports are used to verify names, addresses and age. The site will issue you a certificate to prove to someone you are the person you profess to be, and encourages users to tell potential dates they've been "Trufina'd." (It could be the new "I've been tested.") If that's not enough insurance, you can always head to True.com, a dating site that pre-screens all its subscribers to make sure they're not married and don't have a criminal record. People apparently don't mind undergoing such scrutiny in order to get a date. According to the Internet measurement site ComScore Networks, the not-yet 2-year-old True.com had five times as many unique visitors last month as JDate and Nerve.com, combined.
But can a site tell you if your date will hate your cat or love your parents? You're going to have to figure that one out on your own.
Indeed, these sites threaten to completely alter our approach to dating, an area where a certain degree of deception has for millennia been the norm. (Yes, it was good for me. Really, I've never felt this way before. No, you don't look fat.) While rating sites may be able to weed out the snaggletoothed and smelly, they could also needlessly rule out a real catch who might have harmlessly varnished the truth by giving himself an extra inch of height.
"What about subjective criteria, like sense of humor?" asks Esther Kustanowitz, a singles columnist for New York Jewish Week and an online dating blogger. "I may not think someone's funny, and someone else will -- that's a matter of chemistry and personal taste, not truth and deception."
What's more, does knowing the whole truth necessarily mean we're going to like someone more? Love frequently needs the kind of blur created by lies or half-truths in order to blossom. After all, once you get to the "Till death do us part" stage of the romance, there will be plenty of time to discuss overbearing parents and urine aim.
There's one site that's taken the trend toward truth in dating to an extreme. At Esquire's Brutally Honest Personals site, more than a dozen brave souls have posted nothing but the absolute truth about themselves.
"I work a lousy, low-paying job and live with my parents," 24-year-old Rachel Tropp wrote in hers, which she posted on a whim last year. "I don't spend much time on my appearance; I'm skinny and small-breasted. I have moles in odd places and should probably clip my toenails more often. I prefer sitting around playing video games to doing things. I drink a good deal and make fun of people I don't even know."
Apparently, the truth was more attractive than she thought it would be: She got more than 300 responses.
"The responses fell into two categories: really desperate guys my age, or skanky guys in their 50s who thought I had low self-esteem and felt like they alone could convince me I'm attractive," said Tropp, an administrative assistant in Los Angeles. "One guy e-mailed me offering to buy me breast implants."
She went out with only one of the younger online suitors, but she rebuffed him when he tried to bed her at a Halloween party after they had only "hung out" a few times.
Had she done any research on him before meeting him?
"Lord, no!" she said. "People are way too frightened. Most people aren't going to be evil serial killers or lecherous married men. Actually, a lot of them might be lecherous married men. But still, just go out for a drink! Just meetsomeone. One in-person date isn't going to kill you ... probably."