What do Match.com, Plenty of Fish, Christian Mingle, Zoosk, eHarmony, OkCupid, and a hundred other dating websites have in common?

After just minutes, you can set up a profile with your age, interests, and preferences and voila: you have a magical account that will help you ďfind love the easy way.Ē

Or so you hope. But what may seem like a magic potion to finding forever love can result in something far less romantic if you arenít careful.

According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, over 38 percent of Americans who are single and looking for a partner have an online dating profile.

The number of singles who have tried online dating is estimated to be around 41,250,000. Though online dating carries the stigma of being for the single and desperate, it is gaining popularity with the rise of the mobile Internet and, interestingly, online shopping.

Equating online dating to shopping for a partner seems harsh, yet dating websites provide thousands of profiles that users can browse for hours. For example, Match.com boasts a database of over 21,575,000 men and women looking for casual, short term, and long term relationships.

Over half of online daters are male, between the ages of 25 and 35, with some college education. This sells perfectly to the single Soldier, some of whom do have intriguing success stories. Others wonder, though, if the dangers of online dating outweigh its triumphs.

Scammers, stalkers, and bogus bylines are just few of the disadvantages to an online profile. These reasons, coupled with frequent messages that can be sexually degrading, contain hate speech, or verge on cyber bullying, should make users think twice before activating a profile.

For research purposes, I created profiles of my own to troll some of the more popular dating sites. What I found was both intriguing and disturbing.

First, the positives. Most sites try to reduce fake profiles by requiring a photo upload to activate a profile, while others have disabled the siteís paste capability, thus forcing users to manually enter all their profile information. Some of the sites, like OkCupid, can be used as a social database rather than just a dating medium. Though itís name suggests otherwise, an OKC profile can be a very public version of Facebook.

Other sites, like Match.com, are for romance seekers only. Sign up is free, but accessing messages requires upgrading to Match.comís $25 monthly plan. This plan allows access to emails, visitors, and a chat room, as well as a top 10 list of daily matches. To find these matches, the website applies mathematical algorithms to a profile to magically Ďmatchí it to someone with a similar profile.

Free sites, such as Plenty of Fish, tout the same matching capabilities. But suffice to say; you get what you pay for. Even if I were single, I never would have dated the people in my match inbox, especially not Jailbird133 who requested a mate with money to pay off his bail.

Now for the disturbing part. First, most of the sites have a relatively low amount of gate keeping, especially the free ones. Despite a courtesy email from the site administrator warning against lewd photographs and hate speech, the free websites I saw contained both. After interviewing some of the users of these sites, I heard various complaints about lewd language, hate speech and messages containing nude or partially nude photographs. As far as the users could tell, none of the profiles they reported had been deleted. Additionally, it was difficult to block pesky contacts from their inboxes, especially when using a mobile application for browsing the site.

Another concern is the profile creation process. Anyone with Internet access can set up an account. There are no background checks, even on most of the subscription sites. All Match.com requires is an email address, name, age, and photo to create a profile. Thus, itís not difficult to create an account with completely bogus information.

Exhibit A: While putting together an account, I used older photographs of myself while claiming my salary was $80,000 (I wish). Some of the most common things that female users lie about on dating websites are weight, build and age. Male users are more likely to lie about age, height and income. Furthermore, though some sites filter profile photographs with an approval process, all free sites forgo this step. Use your imagination to guess what appears on some profiles.

Despite its shortcomings, there are some ways to guard against stalkers, scammers and future porn stars. But first, there are a couple ground rules to make while setting up and maintaining your profile.

(Editorís note: This is part one of a multi-part story about online dating.)