It used to be that people snickered at relationships that began online. But that now feels like ancient history.

Now, most Americans “say online dating is a good way to meet people,” according to the Pew Research Center. Nearly half the public — and this was in 2016 — knows someone who met a spouse via online dating or who uses online dating themselves.

In fact, in 2017, 18 percent of brides met their spouses online, according to bridal website The Knot, says Cision. That same year, online dating became, says Zoosk’s The Date Mix, a $3 billion industry.

There are also some byproducts of the online dating trend: over half of British singles surveyed by The Sun say they’ve never asked someone out in person, and 46 percent have never dumped someone face-to-face.

But rather than decry Tinder and Match.com as the death of relationships, we know online dating is here to stay — and that, according to Zoosk, “personal compatibility algorithms work exceedingly well and yield great results for relationship-minded users.” Economists have demonstrated that online dating has led to a sharp increase interracial marriages, which are less likely to break up during the first year. And people who meet online tend to express more marital satisfaction, researchers at the University of Chicago discovered.

So how to get in on the action — but stay safe while dipping your toes in the water? There’s plenty to worry about in the wild world of online dating, even before you get to the part of actually meeting someone in real life.

Pick A Reputable Site

If you go for one of the big sites, you know what you’re getting. Some of the smaller, niche sites may be less than on the up-and-up. Do your research. You want the site to have a critical mass of users that makes it likely you’ll find a match, sound security protocols in place that protect your sensitive data (including your financial information), and assurance that while potential dates may be matched by geography, they don’t get a peg on your exact location or neighborhood.

Use Safe Password Protocols

Like any other site, you should use a strong, unique password. Make sure the resulting concoction is nothing you’re using for any other site. Do not divulge it to anyone; dating sites will never email you asking for your password.

Pick An Appropriate User Name

If you are making a user name, it should not include your first name or your last name. For that matter, it shouldn’t match your Instagram name, your Twitter handle, or any other social media name. It should be unique. And realize that if you name yourself sexbomb69 or wannaputaringonit23, you’re coming off a bit pushy. Try something neutral. Your favorite animal. Your favorite book. Neutral, neutral, neutral.

Use A New Photo

Lift the pic you were thinking of using. Do a reverse image search. You unearthed identifying information about yourself, didn’t you? That’s a hop, skip, and a jump from an address and a phone number. Use a photo for your dating profile that you don’t use for anything else online.

Research Your Match

Do all the things you don’t want someone doing to your page — and which you’ve hopefully avoided through smart security measures. Search any information you can find, which may lead you to their social media accounts, if they aren’t linked. Do they seem to match their online persona? Trust your instincts.

Be Wary Of Going Off-Platform

Every reputable dating site has a smooth app and interface for chat. There’s no need to move right to another venue, which takes you out of the protection of the dating service and into uncharted, unprotected territory.

If They Ask For Money, Run

They’re a scammer. Plain and simple. Some scammers will spend weeks or months building up to this point. But the second a person asks for a wire transfer, cut them off and report them. Yes, it might hurt. Yes, you will feel used, betrayed, and possibly heartbroken. But cut. Them. off.

Look For Other Suspicious Signs

Such as: having a foreign telephone number when they claim to be from the United States, being unaware of current events or pop culture in the United States, always logging on at odd hours, and only odd hours (because they’re in a radically different time zone).

The digital dating life isn’t that far off from real dating: you might have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your princess or prince. Luckily, there are lots of fish in the virtual sea. There’s almost certainly one suited for you. The trick? To go out and find them — safely.

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