Most services offer digital messaging, while others provide additional services such as webcasts, online chat, telephone chat (VOIP), and message boards.

Members can constrain their interactions to the online space, or they can arrange a date to meet in person.

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Some sites are completely free and depend on advertising for revenue.

Others utilize the freemium revenue model, offering free registration and use, with optional, paid, premium services.

Niche sites cater to people with special interests, such as sports fans, racing and automotive fans, medical or other professionals, people with political or religious preferences (e.g., Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, etc.), people with medical conditions (e.g., HIV , obese), or those living in rural farm communities.

In 2008, a variation of the online dating model emerged in the form of introduction sites, where members have to search and contact other members, who introduce them to other members whom they deem compatible.

Mrs Saunders added: “It is vital that prosecutors consider the bigger picture when looking at evidence and examine both the online and offline behaviour pattern of the defendant.

“Online abuse is cowardly and can be deeply upsetting to the victim.

“Thankfully this is not the case and an online footprint will be left by the offender.” A CPS spokesman said the guidelines cover the use of false online profiles and websites which are set up to publicise “false and damaging information”.

“For example, it may be a criminal offence if a profile is created under the name of the victim with fake information uploaded which, if believed, could damage their reputation and humiliate them,” the spokesman said.

Most services also encourage members to add photos or videos to their profile.