When I first tried computer dating a few months ago, it became my dirty little secret. But not for long. As time passes, it has become a...

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When I first tried computer dating a few months ago, it became my dirty little secret. But not for long. As time passes, it has become a favored way for people to get together. Even a colleague, who definitely qualifies as date bait, has given it a shot. And it was better than her last experience, a guy she met in a bar.

There are volumes written about how to handle these situations — how to manage your online romance without using a spreadsheet. However, I have learned a bit along the way about these interactions, as it pertains to e-mail. So I will now plumb the depths of that accumulated knowledge.

Modern relationships are based on protection. The worst thing that can happen in the real world is that you can catch a disease. Fortunately, prevention activity usually works. In the virtual world, you need to protect your reputation and save yourself from embarrassment.

The best vaccination against this is to find someone you think you like, get his or her phone number, and stay off e-mail forever. Follow this path, and no embarrassing virtual trail will ever bite you in the back.

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But that takes all the fun out of it. If you must take e-mail to the limit in these situations there are a few basic guidelines:

• Get off of the dating service’s e-mail system and use regular addresses. The systems used by these services are abysmal. You can lose information, if you are lucky. Otherwise, the lack of a spell checker and formatting will make you appear stupid in front of someone you are trying to impress. And while I have no evidence of this, I must believe that anything you write on a proprietary system will end up in some marketing document.

So as soon as you connect make arrangements to meet “outside.” (The exception to this rule is Yahoo!, which uses its own stable e-mail system to handle communication between prospective mates.)

• When you connect outside, protect your address. You can get a Web mail account with a nondescript label to get acquainted. If you don’t trust someone completely, you don’t want to send them an e-mail from an account that spells out your name. From there, it’s only a short path to searching for you online and finding out where you live. Or running a search and turning up your membership on the dean’s list.

• Don’t write down any secrets until you really trust your correspondent. There is the notion that no e-mail is absolutely secure, that personal information can pour out of a server junction between points of contact. This may be paranoia, but it is still a bad idea to send off secrets to someone you barely know. This makes things difficult. In theory, being clever, funny and seductive should work to your advantage here. On the other hand, these postings could turn up anywhere.

And — horrors — your correspondent could turn out to not be what he or she advertises. Most people unfortunately lie. Usually this is about height, weight or cleanliness. But it is also possible they could lie about gender or species.

So while e-mailing can be fun, you are advised to get that phone number and call her/him up now. Just to make sure.

No column about this topic would be complete without advice as to how to extricate oneself from an unpleasant situation. This is gender-based. Women should send a mealy-mouthed note about how they feel the interaction is going nowhere. Men need only stop writing.

If you have questions or suggestions for Charles Bermant, you can contact him by e-mail at cbermant@seattletimes.com. Type Inbox in the subject field. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.