Has Valentine's Day caught you looking for love in all the wrong places? Then plug in your PC and take a ride down the information highway. Like the couples below, you just might find adventure...and romance to boot.

DEBORAH TURNER WASN'T LOOKING FOR LOVE WHEN SHE HEADED ONTO the electronic superhighway in January 1989. Instead, Turner—then an Albany, N.Y., apartment manager—just wanted to grouse about the geeks who log onto computer networks and pass themselves off as professional men.

Screech! "What if you are a doctor or lawyer?" fired back Steve Baumrucker, a Tennessee physician. No sooner had the challenge been issued than each knew their meeting was more than just a cyber fender-bender: It was, as they say, love at first byte. Three days later the two moved their conversation to a private section of the network (where they could exchange messages shielded from the prying eyes of their fellow computer users) and, one day after that, to the telephone. "The second I heard his voice, I knew there was never going to be anybody else in my life," says Deborah, 33. Says Steve: "I heard the voice of an angel." Steve began flying to Albany every weekend. Just 82 days after their first on-line run-in, they lied the knot in Santo Domingo and now live in Church Hill, Tenn. "When you're on-line, that social mask we all wear is gone and relationships can become very intense very quickly," says Steve, 38, who is writing a book about computer romance. "It seems much healthier and safer than wasting your time in a singles bar."

And the odds may be better too. Using a device known as a modem, computer owners are logging on to on-line services in unprecedented numbers. Gary Alien, head of a Bethesda, Md., research firm that studies the ways people use computers to communicate, estimates that 4.5 million Americans are connected to commercial services like Prodigy, CompuServe and America Online (users spend an average of $25-30 a month) with a million more signing on each year. Another 4 to 8 million dial up smaller (often free) local systems. The typical user is male, college educated, affluent and, contrary to popular opinion, not a nerd. "People have to get out of thinking that it's like some lonely replacement for real human contact," says Lisa Palac, editor of the cyberspace magazine Future Sex.

While some of the love connections are made on singles forums, most are simply a fringe benefit of forums designed to let users discuss politics, pets or even Seinfeld. Carole Benson-Hinners, 50, a substitute teacher, began chatting with husband Bill, 35, a chef, while talking about video poker on Prodigy and decided to meet in Las Vegas. "We figured if we didn't hit it off, at least we'd enjoy ourselves," says Carole. But hit it off they did, and on a return trip to Vegas in 1992, they took their $4,000 in poker winnings and got married. Says Carole: "I won in more ways than one."

Not all the endings are as happy. Dallas private investigator Pam Johnson remembers a woman who conned more than 100 men out of money and airline tickets. "She'd say, 'I'm coming to see you,' and those guys would send her money," says Johnson. "I found one guy from Louisiana who sat on his porch for two days waiting for her to come."

"People can take advantage of the situation," admits Bruce Davis, 40, a lawyer who met fiancée Marcie Brooks, 43, on America Online. Brooks, who runs a Cincinnati manufacturing business, had previously become involved with a married man. "He always called from a pay phone, and his home number was a rollover line from the office," says Marcie, who was divorced for 20 years before she met the thrice-wed Bruce. "Apparently, this is common."

Now planning a wedding for later this year, Marcie and Bruce admit that their cyber-romance puzzles most of their friends. "They don't understand how we could begin a relationship on a computer," says Bruce. "It might be easier to tell them Marcie's from outer space."

Robert Allen's parents were equally confused when he told them he'd met Frances Nelson, an administrative assistant from Union City, N.J., on a singles forum and had invited her to move in with him. But Allen, 32, a Houston plumber, and Nelson, 29, were determined. "We really, really loved each other," she says. Allen, who admits to some tense moments before the two exchanged photos, says he's thrilled. "I'm not exactly gorgeous and she's no bathing beauty, so it worked out," he says.

Of course, in cyberspace, as in real life, not every romance is meant to be. Brian Youngerman, 31, a recent law school graduate living in Prospect Park, Pa., fell in love with a woman he met on America Online in June 1989, but the relationship ended when a jealous Brian kept insisting she end her computer chats with other men. "I let my jealousy get out of hand," he admits. "For my part, it was very real—she was cheating."

And not all cyberspacemen know the nuances of romance—as Christian Sykes discovered when, as an experiment, he logged on as a woman. "I knew men could be jerks, but I was startled at how quickly they considered themselves on intimate terms with me," says Sykes, 24, a waiter in Lawrence, Kans. "We'd be talking about books or music, and suddenly they'd launch into questions about sex. I wanted to be friends, and all they could think about was how to lure me into the sack."

Perhaps they should take a lesson from Joe Pierson, 29, an Omaha salesman, who let his relationship with Pam Heller, 26, an administrative assistant at a local business college, develop ever so slowly. The two met in October 1992 in Prodigy's poetry forum; for months, Pam knew Joe simply as a friendly log-on—even though they lived only two miles apart. Then, in early 1993, Pam announced the death of a family friend, and Joe sent her a private message with a poem he'd written. "He'd posted poems before and I could see that he was a caring person, but this was the first time he'd sent a poem to me—just me," says Pam.

The two began dating in March. Last June, Joe showed up at Pam's house with roses and a teddy bear and asked her to log on; on her e-mail she found the words "Will you marry me?" (She accepted the low-tech way by simply saying "Yes.") Says Joe: "We're old-fashioned romantics who found love through the computer." Still, their May wedding will have a decidedly newfangled touch. "The monitor," Pam quips, "is going to be our best man."

CYNTHIA SANZ
BILL SHAW in Church Hill, STANLEY YOUNG in Los Angeles, and bureau reports

  • Contributors:
  • Bill Shaw,
  • Stanley Young.