Prescreen Your Date Before It's Too Late

I’ve gone on my fair share of crappy first dates, and I’m sure you have, too. I’ve suffered through a companion with an extreme lack of conversational skills and social awareness, someone who was practically making love to his CrackBerry the whole time, and an adult male who had a weird obsession with the Jonas Brothers (don’t ask).

If only I had done some background research on these people before going out with them. I might have saved myself a little heartache and a lot of eye rolling.

Before you invest time (and money) into getting ready for your next big night, poke around online to learn more about exactly who it is you’re taking out. A few precautionary measures can spare you the first-date jitters--and perhaps even a disastrous marriage.

The Basics: Social Networking Sites

If all you have is a name, then Facebook is a great place to start. Your prospective date might already be in your network, meaning that you have access to their entire profile (if he or she hasn’t adjusted Facebook’s privacy settings). Pictures, occupation, stories written on the wall, who’s on the friends list--all of these things give you a good peek into a person’s life.

What if the privacy setting is limited to “friends only”? Relax, you’re not out of luck. Just because the profile itself is viewable only to people on the person’s friends list, that doesn’t mean you can’t access its information.

Applications for Facebook such as Photo Stalker and Photo Surfer let you anonymously browse through the photo collections of people who are not listed as your friend. Applications like this work only on albums that “everyone” can view, but Facebook has that as the default setting. So if your prospective date wasn’t savvy enough to change the setting, lucky you--now you can see what really went on during that wild weekend trip to Cabo.

LinkedIn and Twitter are worth your time, too. Tweets can give you a lot of insight into a person’s likes and interests, as well as into how they spend their time, and they are publically viewable.

You might want to scroll through some past tweets to look for evidence of questionable taste; a tweet like “OMG I luv the new Owl City song!” will help you determine compatibility.

Even if you’re not on the person’s friends list, you can see their current occupation listed on LinkedIn. If they’re described as a “distributor of pharmaceuticals,” you might want to investigate.

You can snoop through tons of other networks and public sites, as well. For starters, try MySpace (if the person still has a MySpace page, that’s a deal breaker right there for me). Map-based sites like Foursquare, Postabon, Yelp, and the new Google Buzz are also good to check out. Just a few minutes of browsing through these pages can tell you where someone likes to eat, shop, work out, get coffee, or meet up with friends for drinks.

Dig a Little Deeper

Okay, so you’ve scoped out your date’s social networks, but you’re convinced that there’s more dirt on this person than they’ve admitted. Before the date commences, load your smartphone with the Date Check app by Intelius, available for the iPhone, Android handsets, and (coming soon) BlackBerrys.

This app conducts instant background searches, so you can have access to a person’s criminal record, interests, living situation, birthday, and net worth--all on your phone. Note that though the app itself is free to download, some searches will cost up to $40 a pop.

As a precautionary measure before the date, you could run certain background checks like the Sleaze Detector, which looks for criminal convictions and sex offenses. It’s probably a good thing to know if you have a prospective night out with a child molester or drug pusher. The Living Situation check will tell you who your date lives with--and it could also reveal their marital status. You really don’t need a “single” person who is actually married with three kids and a golden retriever.

If you decide to move forward with the date, keep the app on your phone in case anything fishy comes up when the two of you are going through the basic getting-to-know-you topics. You could always excuse yourself to go to the restroom, whip out your phone, and verify some key points of the conversation.

Extreme Stalking

If you’ve been dating someone long enough to consider the arrangement a relationship, you might already know a lot of the information that the aforementioned background checks can reveal. But you want to make sure that the relationship is free of any shocking secrets before you splurge on an expensive gift or further your commitment. The question is, how much do you want to find out?

Plenty of desperate options--like e-mail hacking, computer monitoring, and GPS tracking--are out there. But the legality of such measures is questionable, and they’ll most likely terminate your relationship. Resist the temptation to pry this far into someone’s life unless you’re willing to risk a run-in with authorities.

If you’re okay with giving up a little of your own privacy, the two of you could join Google Latitude. That way, you can see each other’s whereabouts on your phone and check in throughout the day. You can also see where they really go when they say they’re visiting their brother for the weekend.

You might want to check to see if your person of interest is registered with online dating sites like Flirtomatic, a social networking service designed as an outlet to flirt with strangers. As on other social networking sites, you create a user profile, upload images of yourself, and browse through other people’s profiles. A user may then send messages to others through the site itself or via the site’s smartphone app.

The site is free, so you could always create a fake profile using a decoy photo and then try to interact with your own love interest. See how he or she responds to online advances made by a supposed stranger.

Be aware, though, that taking such options entails breaking all sorts of trust barriers.

Warning: If You Can Snoop, They Can Too

Everyone hates wasting time on dates that clearly won’t go anywhere. And everyone looks out for telltale signs of failure, such as poor manners, rudeness, and tweeting at the table.

Keep in mind that you could just as easily be prescreened before a date, as well. E-dating expert Laurie Davis encourages daters to do some light online snooping before or after a first date.

“Always Google your matches,” she said recently in a New York Times interview, “Once you have a match’s full name and have been out with that person, check him or her out online just to make sure that everything you know about that person lines up.”

Protect Yourself

The easiest way to protect yourself from prying eyes is to tweak the privacy settings of your social networking sites. Facebook has plenty of options that allow you to hide information from nonfriends. Customize your settings to allow only certain friends to see specific things, such as photos and wall posts. You can set similar privacy rules on Google Buzz, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

Since you can’t do much about professional background checks like the ones Intelius performs, just be honest with your date and be prepared to answer some questions they might have in case they’ve taken the extra step to investigate.

Everything you do online leaves a footprint somewhere. So, please: Before you put out a personal ad on Craigslist, remember who could find it later.

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