Online romance may be fatal attraction

NEW YORK (COLLEGE PRESS EXCHANGE) — After weeks of exchanging messages over the Internet, chatting about their favorite movies and books, they finally decided to meet face-to-face.
He was a 30-year-old doctoral candidate at Columbia University; she was a 20-year-old Barnard College student.
After dinner at a Manhattan restaurant, she felt comfortable enough with the Ivy League computer whiz to go back to his apartment. Once there, prosecutors say he proceeded to torture her for 20 hours, tying her to a chair, burning her with candle wax and threatening to dismember her.
“Chat” rooms, where Oliver Jovanovic and the female student met last fall, are among the most popular features of the Internet. They’re also the most dangerous, experts say.
“The medium is really a playground for manipulative kinds of people,” said Gail Thackeray, a Phoenix prosecutor who has been tracking computer crimes for more than 20 years. “The Internet is a magnet for … sociopaths. There’s always a danger.”
The technology makes it easy for people with similar interests, from metaphysics to Maya Angelou, to find each other and begin an online relationship. But it also makes it easier for a troubled stranger to gain the trust of a person who might ultimately become his or her victim.
Jovanovic was charged with kidnapping, assault and sexual abuse, and awaits trial. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges, and Jovanovic’s attorney said the sexual encounter was consensual and that the two continued to exchange messages over the Internet after their meeting.
Thackeray says people who are wary of meeting strangers on the street are far less cautious when they get to know someone in a chat room.
“People arrive at intimacy through this medium much faster than they would in a relationship,” Thackeray said. “You can be sitting there (getting to know someone) with your hair messed and your jammies on. You’ve got this very warm, intimate feeling of this continuing online relationship.”
The problem, Thackeray said, is that it’s a false sense of intimacy.
“You only know the virtual identity that you’ve been permitted to see,” she said. “They’re controlling the information you learn about them.”
Eric Agustin, a University of Michigan sophomore, researched the idea “Romance and the Internet” for a term paper last spring. He says he quickly discovered that a large number of people on the Internet lie.
“They lie about their age, their weight, their hair color, their occupation, their life,” he concluded. “I spent many hours cruising the chat rooms in America Online and if I took everything I read seriously, I would discover that there is not one person who is subscribed to America Online who is overweight.”
That’s why a face-to-face encounter, not an Internet meeting, is the best way to lay the foundation for a quality relationship, he said.
Thackeray said she doesn’t necessarily discourage online communication.
“Part of the fun of being on the Net is that you can be someone else,” she said. “It can be very enjoyable. I can meet someone interesting online and have an online relationship.”
But when it comes to meeting that person outside the chat room, “reduce your odds of becoming a victim by using common sense,” she advised.
Her tips:
ù Meet in a public place.
ù Take a friend.
ù Don’t go back to the person’s apartment or house until you’ve got a track record, she said. For instance, find out more about the person by meeting his or her family and friends.
ù Always let families and friends know where you can be reached.
Also, think about keeping the relationship right where it started: on the Internet. “Online they can’t hurt you,” she said.