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And the safety of Craigslist users depends on how they use the site. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to guard the same anonymity he maintains in online posts.

“If you go this way, you have to be very, very careful,” said a man in his 50s who has placed Craigslist ads seeking other men in the D. The man said that over the past two decades, he has met about 100 men through Craigslist.

Users could look for mates in their immediate area — around the corner at a Starbucks, for instance. Later, when West was at the Hard Times Cafe in Springfield, Va., shooting pool with two friends, he was spending so much time messaging Smith that one of his friends grabbed the phone and wrote to Smith: “Just come out and meet us.” Smith was just getting off work in the District and decided to go.

Fewer than 5 percent appeared to have photographs of the poster’s face, and fewer still included a name for the poster.“People are looking for a higher level of transparency,” said Britanny Carter, an analyst at the market research firm IBISWorld.Still, Craigslist and similar bulletin-board sites remain a popular venue for people who seek relationships in secret and for men seeking sex with other men.“It’s the dark side of the business, but it’s the truth.” Indeed, in Prince George’s County, a trial is pending against a 24-year-old man accused in two rapes at gunpoint of women he met online in 2014. Few details of Messerschmitt’s personal life have been released publicly by police, and a family spokesman declined to comment.“I have lost everything,” Messerschmitt’s wife, Kim Vuong, said earlier, “my husband and my best friend.” The roots of online dating go back to the mid-1990s.

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