Online dating (search) may seem like a great way to fish in the proverbial sea — but just make sure you don't get "caught" looking for love.

That's what happened to Sean, 32, one of many people to experience a major downside of online dating — having your personal ad discovered by co-workers, friends, family and ex-lovers.

In Sean's case, his workmates found him searching for romance online.

"I think I heard about it from the mailroom guy who has all the gossip," said Jen Moses, a 27-year-old layout artist who works with Sean.

"Most people in our office go on Boston.com several times a day, and [Sean] ended up being 'catch of the week' — his picture was right on the home page," she said. "Within half a day, it had been forwarded around to everyone in the office."

Sean's profile included gems like, "I'm the best kisser you've ever met," "I make more money than you know what to do with," "Grandmothers and kids love me" and "If you're like J-Lo when she had her real body, then you're for me," said Moses. And it featured a picture of him wearing silk boxers.

According to Moses, Sean is an extrovert who seemed only slightly embarrassed by the attention. But discoveries can be even more painful for the finders than for the found.

"We had an e-mail from a woman who was upset that her boyfriend was up on the site only one or two days after they'd broken up," said Trish McDermott, "vice president of romance" at Match.com. "That said, she had to be on the site to find him."

At Lavalife.com, they deal with the problem by having a "backstage" area where users can hide their photos, showing them only to potential mates who make the cut. This service protects the identity of love-seekers who aren't keen on going public with their needs on the Web, but makes it clear that they aren't embarrassed by their photos.

"Some people feel uncomfortable. They don't like their picture being up there in public view," said Lavalife COO Paul Gallucci. "And there's still the stigma of ‘I have to go online to meet people,' although that's eroding."

In Sean's case, he mitigated the situation by sending out an e-mail to his colleagues the next day, making sure people knew that he knew. But that didn't stop the banter around the water cooler.

"It was good for a lot of entertainment around here. Our office is really boring. We don't have anything exciting going on," Moses said. "We first saw the profile a few months ago, but even now you'll sometimes get an e-mail from somebody saying that he's updated his profile."

On the other hand, Moses doesn't think the office looked at Sean, whom she described as "an attractive guy," negatively after the discovery.

In fact, according to McDermott, being an online dater is "almost a badge of hipness" at this point.

"It's cool and trendy. It means you're not sitting on the couch eating Haagen-Dazs. You're out there," she said.

Gallucci agreed that there's no point in hiding in the virtual closet.

"You get seven to 10 times more responses when you have pictures on file. Friends might see, but hey, we're all here in the same game," he said.

And sometimes, being seen by somebody you already know can be a good thing.

"I heard from a couple who had been friends for quite some time, and felt attracted but never did anything about it," McDermott said. "When Match set them up, they started dating."