Kelly Singer went to have a drink and first date with a man she met online, only to find him already hammered at 6 p.m. celebrating his divorce, which was finalized just that morning.
"I swear it only took me 17 minutes to get from Kenosha, Wis., to Grayslake that night," the Lake Zurich resident laughed. "I went directly to a friend's home where a bunch of us were hanging out and talking about all our online dating horror stories."
Online dating sagas of comedic, creepy and downright disturbing proportions seem to have replaced the proverbial mother-in-law anecdotes of old. That said, thousands of genuine love connections have been made online in the last decade as the number of dating websites proliferate.
According to a 2010 study conducted by research firm Chadwick Martin Bailey for Match.com, more than twice as many walks down the aisle took place between people who met on an online dating site compared to those who met in any social setting, including bars, clubs, a best friend's wedding or your neighbor's annual barbecue bash. If, according to the research, one out of five people in a new committed relationship met their significant other on an online dating site, your mama was right -- you have to kiss a couple toads before your online prince or princess shows up.
It's huge business, too. Hundreds of new online dating services debut every year and most fail; we've bidden au revoir to Lovevida.com, animalattraction.com, greatboyfriends.com, true.com, romanticplanet.com, metro date, epersonals and Mate1 (which could have been for pirates for all we know.)
There are fairly general dating sites such as Match.com, as well as focused websites such as ChristianMingle, Jdate for Jewish singles, BlackPeopleMeet.com, SingleParentMeet.com and even farmersonly.com dedicated to the love lives of farmers and ranchers.
AirTroductions is an online service that matches air travelers with compatible seatmates for camaraderie, business or romance. There's Greensingles.com for those who want to hug more than trees and how about Geek to Geek (www.gk2gk.com) for the Lord of the Rings obsessed, ghost hunters, cryptozoology fans, bookworms, TV junkies and, well, you know who you are.
Singer first ventured onto an online dating site about 15 years ago and has tried Match, eHarmony, Yahoo and Plenty of Fish. Lately she's liked OurTime.com because it targets singles 50 and older.
"When I was under 50, POF (PlentyOfFish.com) was fun but I truly didn't do much on most sites," the 53-year-old retail recruiter explained. She became an advocate for joining "Meet Up" groups so she could meet people in a group setting and avoid narrating her entire history on a first date, or having her eyes glaze over listening his life story.
"But after seeing my friends start to pair off, and being inundated with OurTime.com TV ads, on a fluke I took about two weeks to finally complete a profile, which was more satirical than most, just to see who might bite." Singer met her current beau on OurTime.com and a half-year later they are still a coosome twosome.
Chicagoan Kate Silver used a variety of sites and services and she eventually met her boyfriend, Neil Ballentine, on Match.com -- they've been together for four years. The 36-year-old freelance writer suggests those new to the experience dig down and write a profile that's personal and separates you from the sea of seekers.
"Everyone 'likes to laugh,' and 'likes to hang out with their friends,' " she said, "but what distinguishes you? What makes you tick? Have a friend help and have fun writing it."
Next, is the all-important picture. Avatars and photos of your dog won't cut it and, whatever you do, forget the pictures of you with your ex or even someone who looks as though it could be your ex. Silver also encourages you to meet with someone who interests you after just a couple of online exchanges.
"When I first started using dating sites, I would have these long, involved email exchanges. As a writer, I loved it. But I would build the guy into this fantasy person, and when we finally met, I was inevitably disappointed. That's not fair to anyone," Silver said. "After a couple of emails, solidify a quick meeting to see if you're interested in learning more. That way, you don't waste anyone's time."
Although Singer's child is grown, she warns against uploading pictures of your kids ("there are creepy people online") and she thinks a lighter profile can be more attractive. "Also, when responding, don't just 'wink' at someone -- start a conversation," she said. "My current boyfriend is a Green Bay Packers fan so when he saw I was a Bears fanatic, he had to razz me. When I saw his Harley I had to consider that we may be a house divided during football season!"
Most dating sites advise you to take it slow but that did not sway Steve and Sara Schmidt of Wauconda, who met on ChristianMingle.com in April and were hitched by the end of August. Both were previously married (Sara has three kids) and keenly knew their paramour parameters.
"Steve joined after playing a game of Scrabble with friends on his phone; the ad popped up and he joined," Sara said.
"I basically joined for a week to write off dating websites," Steve said. He was a member for just a few days when he met Sara.
There are countless sagas of online daters hiding their true relationship status, too, but technology helps us be smarter sleuths.
"Get their full name and Google them," Singer says. "It is a fact that about 33 percent of online profiles are actually of married people, primarily men, so when a Facebook profile pulls up pics of him and his family or girl/boyfriends that aren't so former, it gives you a bit more insight."
Alexandra Ott, 27, saw the light after six dates with a tall, dark, handsome and tattooed guy she met on OK Cupid. "I was elated and felt like this guy could really be part of my life," said Ott, a Chicago resident who lives in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood.
"For some reason I decided to Google him and to my horror, I found multiple mug shots and a DUI record. On top of that, I found a woman's Facebook profile who shared his last name. Turns out he was married and she ran two different businesses with him. I emailed him and said 'Google yourself, find your wife's Facebook and NEVER call me again.' He wrote me back saying it wasn't true and I blew him off. About a month later, I took the day off work to go to a beach and who do I run into? My guy and his gal. Epic!"
Being dishonest about your marital status is appalling but smaller "white lies" aren't great, either. It's not a good idea to fudge about your age, hair challenges, poundage or other physical attributes. Silver went out with a guy who clearly lied about his height.
"He was shorter than he'd stated, and shorter than me," she said. "We met for coffee, and I didn't realize it until we both stood up at the end of the date."
With 54.2 million single people in the country, some 41.2 million have attempted online dating -- about 52 percent men and 47 percent women (www.statisticbrain.com/online-dating-statistics), So is 2014 your year to become one of the millions who have dipped their toes into the cyberdating pool?
Post Christmas to the Wednesday after Valentine's Day is the peak season for all online dating sites, so take your best selfie and pucker up for a toad or two.