Expecting to receive any Valentine cards - or to send any? There's still time to click, and you don't even have to make eye contact. Vanessa Thorpe explores love's tangled Web
Fans of Chandler, the wisecracking bachelor boy played by Matthew Perry in Friends, will no doubt have moaned at the close of the last Channel 4 series as they watched him finally find his ideal partner. During a succession of Internet chats, he had fallen in love with a mystery woman. They had come to a deep understanding and decided to meet.

The scriptwriters, however, had telegraphed that this Net liaison was not what it appeared to be. Sure enough, Chandler's intimate correspondent was eventually exposed not only as a married woman but also as a previous girlfriend.

That Internet romance and its associated perils can be the basis for a sitcom plotline reflects the great and growing popularity of online love.

The idea of finding true love on the Net appeals for various reasons. It can potentially offer such a pure form of romance - an anonymous wooing that allows countless Cyranos to beguile their Roxannes in spite of their large noses.

It is also, of course, a safe form of flirtation for scaredy cats.

"For many, the world has become an unsafe place in which to meet and connect. Cyberspace allows us to venture out in a convenient and safe way," observe the psychologists Michael Adamse and Sheree Motta, in the introduction to their new book, Online Friendship, Chat-Room Romance and Cybersex. Whether we feel safe entrusting ourselves to the care of two American pop psychologists is another matter - at times their judgement is a little suspect. In a chapter about the value of alter egos in cyberspace, for example, the reader is offered two alternative online introductions: "I'm single, a pilot, 6ft tall, 185lbs, brown hair. Love fine wine, old movies, great at conversation and, most importantly, the art of romance" or "I'm 35, married but bored and looking, 5ft 4in tall, 216lbs, brown hair. I work in car sales, have two kids and love sports, good beer and women ... Oops just spilled some beer on my T-shirt."

According to Drs Adamse and Motta, Mr Great Conversation-and-Fine-Wine's fantasy approach will win out every time. Well, who would have guessed that?

I suppose it is a question of whether you are looking for the kind of chessy nerd who would offer his Net-beloved a rose that looks like this: -{-{-@; or for an honest-to-goodness one-night cyber-stand. The authors believe a touch of fantasy oils the wheels: "Seduction lives on the Net in all of its forms and alter egos make the seduction so much easier, as many people learn the hard way." In fact, most of the seduction involved turns out not to be so much a question of seducing others as of being drawn into a mood of strange abandon.

Ari Muragaiyan, who works at the Cyberia cafe in Ealing, west London, has watched it happen to customers.

"It is like this: imagine Mel Gibson was on the Net and imagine you can tell your personal secrets and fantasies to him at any time, and he is going to tell you his personal secrets and fantasies. That is the kind of feeling you can have each day when you are addicted."

Even Net language is seductive. Users "lurk", "flame" and "whisper" around their prey before they eventually "click".

But Ari has found that the most successful chat-up lines are not quite so high voltage. Offering a sympathetic ear, rather than any other organ, will get the best results.

"Relationships are more likely to happen when people start talking first and then realise they like each other. It is like a pen pal rather than a blind date."

Cybershrinks are right to warn that the hazards multiply once you have found an online lover. Simon, a 29-year-old lecturer from Essex, is in the middle of discovering just what a tangled web Net love can be. He met his girlfriend in a chat room, only to discover later that she was married.

"The reason we started talking in depth was that she said she had problems and really needed a shoulder to cry on," he recalls. "She called herself `The Brunette' and I suppose there was a bit of flirting.

"I had built up a picture of her in my mind which turned out to be wrong. But it wasn't a surprise when we met up because she had sent me photographs.

"If I had first seen her in a pub I would have had problems approaching her because of nerves, but one of the good things on the Internet is that you get to know somebody in a non-threatening way."

So far, so good. But Simon is still waiting for The Brunette to leave her husband and come to live with him. He was not looking for love in the chat room, he says, and already had an active social life. "My feeling is that it happened while I was looking the other way. I am glad it did, but it has not been easy."

The fact that potential lovers are not always quite who they seem is the major danger in online romance. Fiona, who works on the Internet in London, admits she has been guilty of mild misrepresentation.

"I found what I thought was a friendship. People are much freer on the Internet and so I actually hadn't said that I was married," she says. "We used to e-mail each other fairly innocently and it started to seem pretty magical.

"I thought it was very equal and anonymous because, after all, you can turn off at any point and, in theory, you leave no mess behind in your life.

No mess, that is, as long as the romance remains virtual. The trouble starts when cyberlove meets reality.

"He knew where I worked and one day he turned up, which was embarrassing because I didn't want to take it any further," Fiona explains.

There are also charlatans and pranksters prowling some chat rooms. Ari Muragaiyan warns those surfing for a thrill that they stand to be taken the whole way through Net sex by people who are users in more ways than one.

"While gays and transvestites usually go online as themselves and into specific discussion groups, there are other men who go on as a different sex just to dominate and humiliate someone," he says.

"Sometimes it is done as a distraction, too. If a man is being a nuisance in a discussion group, then another male user might log off and then log on again as a woman to start saying provocative things and take them off into a private room. It is like a decoy."

If your Net affair leaves you with nothing worse than eye strain and a feeling of sheepish regret, then you are one of the lucky ones. Things do not stay tidy just because they start on screen. Transatlantic lovers may even become entangled in divorce proceedings.

"There is a chance that if you are sending e-mail billets-doux to the US, you could be subject to the jurisdiction of their courts in a divorce case," warns Margaret Bennett, a London-based international matrimonial lawyer.

In many states, the alleged adulterous behaviour of one of the married parties is crucial when it comes to hammering out a financial settlement. And that's not all.

"In some states, adultery is still actually a crime and elsewhere in Europe - Monaco, for example - a woman is not entitled to receive maintenance if adultery is proved."

Many Americans are already seeking legal help as a result of Internet affairs. Gerry Nissembaum, a lawyer in Boston, candidly describes the Internet as a professional "goldmine"- for while you cannot actually commit adultery on the Internet, you can certainly leave the evidence.

"The Net might seem a highly impersonal form of intimacy, but I had three cases last year and they seem to be growing in numbers," he says.

"In one case, a suburban couple had been married for 18 years and were having a pleasant life, though not too exciting. Then the wife started conversing regularly with someone on the Net. Within a few weeks she said the marriage was over and she was closing down their business. Next thing she was gone.

"People forget that when they delete a message, a spouse who is computer- literate can just go in and recover it later, unless they reformat their hard drive each time," Mr Nissembaum explains. "In this case, that's exactly how the husband found out."

On another occasion, Mr Nissembaum found himself drawn into some online detective work.

"A married fellow had met a woman from California on the Net and they decided to meet up in a little hotel near Malibu. But his wife, my client, went into his e-mail and together we sent out a message to him right there, in his honeymoon suite."

Lawsuits aside, the emotional perils of falling in love with an on-screen fantasy figure are probably not much worse than those in any other courtship. There will always be the capacity for self-delusion.

In their endearing, cut-price Freudian lingo, Drs Adamse and Motto conclude that on the Net the id has a chance to play while the ego and superego stand by and watch. Voyeurism at one more harmless remove?

Pessimistic Britons may prefer the gloomy thought that we will probably all end up like romantically frustrated descendants of Tony Hancock's nerdy radio ham: "Friends all over the world. None in this country, but friends all over the world".

`Online Romance, Chat-Room Friendship and Cybersex' (Airlift, pounds 9.99).