How to Scope Someone Out Online

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By the time my roommate, Sarah, invited a strange man from Australia to stay with us for a month, he no longer seemed like a stranger to her. They had met each other online through a British dating Website, exchanged numerous personal e-mail messages, and eventually communicated through intensive, all-night Skype sessions. Sarah felt like she knew Mr. Australia so well by then--had fallen in love with him so deeply, in fact--that she hardly blinked at inviting him to stay in our apartment for a month. And he didn't think twice about springing for a $2000 plane ticket to fly halfway around the world to see her.

But as soon as they met in person, it became clear that love at first online encounter would translate into thorough disappointment at first sight.

The dating world isn't the only place where people hook up online before they meet in the flesh. Employers increasingly screen job candidates on the Internet before bringing them in for an interview or hiring a new employee. Travelers arrange carpools through Craigslist with strangers they don't meet until they're alone together in the car. Parents use the Web to find nannies. Grown children go online to find caregivers for their parents. There is no limit to the virtual matches made among strangers, and new services facilitating such pairings pop up every day.

So what can you do to minimize your chances of making a mistake--of wasting $2000 on a plane ticket or flying in a job candidate who is all wrong for the position? Take advantage of the ever-growing number of ways to poke around online first, experts say.

Search Engines and Aggregators

Before hiring, dating, or otherwise engaging with a person met at a distance, it's always wise to start with a basic Google or Bing search. But that's not the end of such screening capabilities these days. A few new services aggregate data from various sources of public information into one place.

Spokeo public information aggregator
Spokeo advertises itself as “not your grandma's phonebook,” and offers searches by name, e-mail address, or phone number. (You can also enter your e-mail password and have Spokeo crawl through all your contacts.) It collects information from more than 40 social networking Websites and other sources of public information, and aggregates everything in one location. The data includes demographic details about a person's location and neighborhood, their Pandora playlists and Amazon wish lists, and their shared photos, videos, and blog posts; together, all of those details add up to a more vivid picture of the person in question.

Date Check
A similar service is Date Check, powered by Intelius, which is pushing its mobile aggregator service for iPhone and Android. This service includes criminal-background and sex-offender checks, under the heading “Sleaze Detector.”

Both Date Check and Spokeo offer free services for basic information, with the option of a paid upgrade for deeper searches.

Video and Voice Screening

Skype and other videoconferencing technology can help you avoid the high costs and scheduling conflicts involved in bringing in people from afar to see if they're a good match--for employment, dating, or any other type of partnership.

“The traditional résumé tells recruiters very little about an individual candidate,” says Kurt Heikkinen, the president of Expressume, a company that works with corporations to use online video technology for the interview process.

Founded in 2007, Expressume lets candidates create a video profile that answers prepared questions tailored to clients' needs. In a given period of time, a recruiter can go through many more of these short videos than they can live phone conversations, and they get a more accurate sense of the candidates, Heikkinen says. Once that step has helped to single out the best candidates, the service arranges a live video chat.

If a candidate doesn't have a Webcam, Expressume sends one so that they can record their end of the interview.

“This service is very aligned with post-recession hiring,” Heikkinen says. “Recruiting staffs have been decimated, and they're looking for ways to be more efficient and save cost. Travel is time-consuming and expensive.”

Whether you're bringing a candidate in for an interview, asking someone on a date, or hiring a person to feed your cat, a video call--in real time or prerecorded--can give you a sense of that person ahead of time.

“Are they comfortable? Do they make good eye contact?” says Michelle Krier, director of marketing and social media for Pinstripe, a recruitment outsourcing company based in Brookfield, Wisconsin. “Those types of things are really important.”

Though video-chatting with a person brings them to life a lot more than simple Google results do, it's no substitute for face-to-face interaction.

“Keep in mind, you are communicating with someone you have never met before,” advises Julie Spira, author of the bestseller The Perils of Cyber-Dating: Confessions of a Hopeful Romantic Looking for Love Online .

“Take your relationship from online to offline as soon as possible to see if there is any chemistry,” Spira says.

Next: Using Social Networking Sites Effectively

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