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He Said, She Said: Who's the Face Behind the Internet Screen?

November 1, 2007 By:
Roy S. Gutterman, JE Feature
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The photo on the wedding announcement in the paper looked vaguely familiar. I wracked my brain for recollection. For better or for worse, I have great, almost stalker-like memory recall for people, places and pictures. I can see someone once, and, more often than not, remember things about them.

This question stuck in my head for a few days until I went on to JDate, and saw the same photo for the 30-something woman whose impending nuptials were just announced in the paper. It seemed peculiar that she was maintaining an active profile on the online dating site. In fact, she had just logged on within the past few days.

Sensing something was awry, I made a mental note to see when the profile would come down. It was fair to assume that she had been involved for quite a while with the guy she was marrying. So why keep a profile running?

The profile stayed up for six to eight months following the engagement announcement. While I never contacted her, I did track her. Then, by a stroke of luck, I ran into her brother at a singles event I organized.

In the course of my conversation, the guy I'll call "Dan" told me about his newly married sister -- the same girl running a profile who wrote that her perfect date would be "one in which the conversation is easy, awkwardness is nonexistent, there would be chemistry and major flirting."

"Oh, that's just a joke. Anybody who knows her knows it's a joke," Dan said of the profile.

"Who is the joke on? All men on the site? I'm a man. You're a man. Is the joke on us?" I asked.

"You'd have to know her to understand the joke," he replied.

Still, I'm wondering: Where's the joke? For weeks after our conversation, I negotiated with Dan to get an interview with his sister, the aspiring comedienne/ occupational therapist. But she balked at my requests, and Dan could only push her so far to try and get her to talk.

This was hardly the only bogus profile that I've stumbled on through Internet dating sites. In fact, spotting bogus profiles has become a side hobby for me.

Sometimes, it's not too difficult. I cannot imagine that there are dozens of Nordic blonde female Jewish doctors out there who look like models and post seductive photos of themselves in bathing suits.

Yet I've seen many more than a handful of such profiles. Other telltale signs of bogus profiles are professional glamour photos of women who look like they fell off the pages of Vogue, but have no essay portion, or very short and clichéd essays. Many profiles for these women, usually in their 20s and 30s, also post a wide age range for their partners, anywhere from 20 to 60 years old.

Gail Laguna, vice president of corporate communications for Sparknetworks, the Beverly Hills-based parent company for JDate, laughed at my Nordic-blonde hypothesis.

"We make every effort to maintain the legitimacy of profiles," she said.

Sparknetworks, which owns and operates 30 Internet dating sites, "manually" reviews every profile, she added.

To ensure the integrity of its data and membership, Laguna said, the site has a 24-hour review period for profiles in which "customer-care representatives" read essays and review pictures to weed out profanity, vulgarity or hidden e-mail addresses in the text. They also look for inappropriate or nude photos, even celebrity photos.

"We keep it clean and legitimate," she said. "There's nothing in it for us to have fake profiles. For us, creating the best experience for our users bodes the best for us."

Laguna would not provide staffing figures on how many customer-care representatives the company employs at its three locations in Beverly Hills, Utah and Israel. Nor would she provide data on how often profiles are rejected or taken down.

"It's a judgment call on our part. We want to make sure a real live person that exists."

Fake profiles, admitted Laguna, do slip through, though "it's pretty rare."

She shifted the topic from phony to inappropriate profiles or offensive messages to encouraging users to ensure the site's integrity by self-policing. Users only have to press a button online to make a report, she said.

Is anyone out there offended enough by a profile that may or may not be provably phony besides me? Again, even though I follow my instincts on the fake profiles, is there really any way to make sure that the person behind the photo is really who she says she (or he) is? My other question is: Who posts a phony profile -- and why?

"I don't want to psychoanalyze our membership base," replied Laguna.

Describing how I uncovered one bogus profile and explained that the girl's brother told me it was a joke, Laguna said: "A joke? On who, her husband?"

In the virtual world of dating, verifying profiles for some 650,000 members around the world is virtually impossible and certainly impractical.

"That's tough," admitted Laguna. "The review process has to be a judgment call. Even if we called the person on the phone, we have no way of authenticating it. Unless they come here with a notarized form and take a blood sample, how can we authenticate?"

Still, she said, "the majority of the time, you'll come across people looking for a serious relationship."

The moral of this story? Even if the woman behind the profile turns out to be real, then the real difficult stuff starts: getting to know her!

Roy S. Gutterman is a Syracuse, N.Y.-based writer. To contact him, visit: www.Lrev.com.

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