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.
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."
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.