Southern Miss student Dailey Johnson's pictures are currently circulating in Iowa, Texas and Washington. Attractive and athletic, Johnson is popular on online dating services even though he's never used them and doesn't have a personal account of his own.
"About a year ago I got a Facebook message from a girl that was in our group that I had met [on spring break.] She had told me a guy was using my pictures," said Johnson.
"I still use it, I guess I'm just more cautious about it now, and I did feel violated," said Johnson.
Behind each photo of Johnson, someone is wandering online, sending out messages and taking part in romantic conversations. Johnson will likely never be able to reclaim his photos. The other party in each of these deceptive dialogues may be skeptical, but the marketplace for digital romance has grown too enormous to police effectively. It is up to the user to exercise caution. Buyer beware.
Once a niche business, a cultural oddity capitalizing on the flirtatious chat rooms of the early internet, online dating services in recent years have experienced a surge in both popularity and profitability.
Match.com boasts 17 million users, eHarmony 20 million. According to a study conducted at Northwestern University, online dating is now the second-most-common way for couples to meet.
The stigma and quirkiness fading, the phenomenon seems destined to become a feature of modern life, but according to Jones County Junior College Marriage and Family professor Stacy Ruth, online dating is still too new to determine its effectiveness.
"Statistics show that people who meet online have shorter engagement times, but we are still young in this so we are going to have to wait a few years and see what research shows, "said Ruth. "I think online dating has its place, we are a tech society. We are online on our phones instagramming, twittering and facebooking. It does promote social relationships, so it is a comfortable step for the young people."
In a non-scientific WDAM online poll of 100 random Pine Belt viewers, 86 percent said they had tried to date online, and 44 percent reporting having had an unpleasant experience.
Even though nearly half of the viewers had a bad experience, 66 percent said they would still recommend online dating to a friend.
One of the most pernicious elements of the new online dating arenas is the constant threat of getting duped by fake profiles known in some circles as catfish. The term comes from Henry Woodd Nevinson's 1921 book, Essays in Freedom and Rebellion. According to Nevinson, fisheries once added catfish to tanks of cod destined for faraway places. The catfish chased the cod and kept them from becoming inedible from inactivity. Catfish, a 2010 movie about false online identities, drew parallels in online dating. According to the film, the fact that you can never be sure of the identity of the person on the other side of the screen until you meet face-to-face, those who venture online for romance never can never truly let their guards down.
Nevinson's catfish story is probably not true, but the popularity of the film made the metaphor part of internet lore, and the phenomenon is real and dangerous.
"He was late; I called him and asked him where he was. He said he was walking. I had to go pick him up, which was awkward because he told me he had a car," said Melanie Stewart of Oloh. "[In his picture] he had short hair, clean cut real nice, presentable looking gentleman and he came there with long scraggily hair and sunken cheeks. He didn't look anything like he said he did."
According to Stewart, after the date she had to take drastic measures to sever the relationship.
"I did have to get my number changed, he wouldn't leave me alone."
Despite the threat of catfish, online dating success stories are still common.
Lindsay and Scott Watson met on Match.com before Lindsay moved to Hattiesburg to pursue graduate school.
"We were only dating about nine months and had a six month engagement," said Lindsay.
Although the engagement period was short, Scott said that the couple talked for months before Lindsay moved, and the entire process felt natural.
"We talked for three months before she moved down, but by the time she got down here I felt like I knew her my whole life," Scott said.
Melanie Stewart is a pseudonym. The source requested anonymity.