Twenty years ago, only 14 percent of Americans were online, and most people believed online dating was an odd way to meet potential partners.
In 2015, however, things are very different. Nine out of 10 Americans are online, and online dating has lost its stigma.
According to Pew Research, one in five adults aged 25 to 34 have used online dating services, and two-thirds of online daters have actually gone out with people they've met online.
While the majority of people truthfully represent themselves online (or at least intend to), it's still wise to be cautious in this era of virtual dating. There are plenty of online scams, and it's easier for someone to lie to you online than in real life.
While many of us know someone who met a long-term partner on the Internet, we have also met someone who has been catfished, aka lured in by a false online persona.
Sometimes, people lie deliberately and maliciously. Other times, they misrepresent themselves subtly and unintentionally.
Either way, it can pay off to run a background check on a prospective partner before meeting him or her offline.
How do you do it? Assuming you want to do it for free, here are the steps you can take to get the information you need:
1. Run a criminal record check.
To do this, you’ll need a name and a date of birth, but the exact information depends on the county.
You may be able to access records online at a local court’s website. Other times, you will need to visit the court in person or speak to a representative over the phone to obtain the records.
2. Run a simple Google search.
Enclose the full name of the person in quotation marks to filter out non-applicable results.
Remember to search not only for the person’s full legal name, but also for any online aliases the person has used, like maiden names. If you are stuck looking up a common name, add in any other information you know about the person, like the name of a school, workplace or town.
3. Conduct a secondary set of searches on social networks.
Facebook is the best starting point for most searches.
If the profile is set to private, you can try a site-specific search on Google. That way, you should see any comments the person has made on public pages, as well as public groups he or she has joined.
4. When you don't know the person's real name, do a reverse lookup.
If you have a phone number or an email address, you may be able to conduct a reverse lookup on Facebook.
And once again, a simple Google search may pull up just what you're looking for.
5. Ask around.
This is particularly great if you are finding a shortage of reliable information. Sometimes, it really is smart to politely ask other people to help you out.
Maybe you have found a few online profiles, but no offline information. Someone else may be forthcoming with details, if you explain your situation.
Keep in mind it will probably get back to the person you are researching that you checked up on him or her. But if he or she does not understand your caution, it may be an indication it isn’t a good match.
And what about websites like Records.com or Instant Checkmate? Well, a commercial background check isn’t necessarily a bad idea, if you aren't able to find enough information by following the steps above. Most of these reports are comprehensive, and because they are automated, you will get them in a matter of seconds.
An online background check may seem like a lot of effort, and you may feel paranoid while you are doing it.
But remember: Even years of online contact may not be enough to really know what you are getting yourself into. And it is always better to be safe than sorry.