On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog—or a cad, or an ax murderer, or plumper than you look in the picture. This uncertainty can inspire a certain paranoia among New York women—could the language of love be a tissue of lies? Maria Coder, a petite, round-faced 35-year-old PR manager for an online grocer, has turned this sort of suspicion into a business model. For the last several years, she’s been codifying techniques she’s developed to ascertain that her prospective dates are who they say they are. Tonight, in a room in a midtown office building, Coder is filleting the Match.com profile of some poor gentleman before an audience composed of mostly thirtyish women, in a class called Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing 101. Most are taking notes, eager to convert their ambient dating neuroses into a system.
“I hope nobody here knows him,” Coder says.
“Maybe he’s somebody’s husband,” one woman jokes, to nervous laughter, since the whole point is that, online, a husband might become anyone.
Coder’s first step is to input the text into the Gender Genie, an online algorithm that is supposed to determine whether the profile was written by a man or woman. Having help with a profile seems the whitest of lies. But to Coder, you can’t have too much information. “People who have nothing to hide hide nothing,” she keeps repeating.
Then she probes deeper into the kinds of clues that can give away masculine subterfuge. If his picture was taken at a bar that has since closed, the photo is outdated. If it’s a close-up, ask for another—he may be shorter than he claims to be. If there is suddenly an influx of photos taken of him on vacation, ask about it—a technique that once led Coder to discover that her prospective date was in a serious relationship. “It’s not like he has a personal photographer following him everywhere,” she says.
To Coder, the masculine imagination is a thing of wonder. “I once went out with a guy who said he owned a transportation company,” she says, shaking her head. “It turns out he owned a pedicab.”
Getting through the profile is only the first step—the passage from date to boyfriend demands even more rigor. If he says he went to Columbia, call the alumni office and say you’re looking to get in touch with an old classmate. If he says he works at Morgan Stanley, call the switchboard late at night and wait for his name.
The boyfriend that arouses suspicion needs a vetting of a kind that might make sense in a criminal trial. Has he ever been involved in a civil suit? Check Intelius.com for public records. Does he really speak Farsi? Trick him into a three-way call with a telephone interpreter through LanguageLine.com. Take a strand of his hair for a mail-order drug test, enter his name and Zip Code into various criminal databases, etc.
As the class goes on, the women share the experiences that brought them here. One went to the library to look up her boyfriend in old White Pages and found his wife’s name listed with the number. Another had a background check run on hers and discovered that he’d had a restraining order taken out against him. A third used a drug-identifier website to find out that her boyfriend was on an antidepressant—she never told him she knew but was put at ease about his low libido.
Coder’s message was that learning these techniques is like learning a martial art: You can go anywhere. Her audience seemed surprised when Coder told them that Craigslist dating is just as safe as the other dating sites, which she says “only give you the illusion that you’re safer.”
The correct approach to Craigslist dating, Coder instructed, involves writing two posts: the first simple and honest, the second a fake and embellished “control post.” Often, one guy will respond to both posts, sometimes with two different stories: trap sprung! One of Coder’s students encountered a man claiming to be a lawyer in one e-mail and a medical student in the other. But, the student implied, injecting a note of impetuous irrationality that was the most romantic thing said all evening, even a liar might be worth a date. “It’s just good to know who you’re dealing with.”