IT took only a few strokes on a keyboard in Hong Kong to contact student James Cao for an Internet interview on dating in cyberspace. For people like Mr Cao, a few sessions on the Internet can start an affair. On Valentine's Day he joined millions of others in having a dozen red roses and a card sent to his girlfriend, a woman he met while surfing his Net. The only difference was he also made his order through his computer. The 24-year-old mainland student, who is studying in United States, spends hours a day communicating with his American girlfriend through the medium that brought them together. ''Love on the Internet is just like in real life,' he replied in his electronic mail message to the Post. According to Mr Cao, there are usually three stages in a Net relationship. It begins with idle chit-chat, progresses to a telephone conversation and, finally, leads to an actual meeting. 'A lot of people find it easier to open up on the Net than in real life. 'They feel more relaxed as there is no need to face people. It is why many of them fall in love on the Net even though they never meet each other,' he said. Mr Cao believes most Net relationships are at first driven by fantasy but can later develop into intense and revealing dialogue between people who like to express themselves with written words. 'When people are reading and typing instead of talking, they spend more energy thinking about what they are saying, making net conversations heavier and more meaningful than daily chats,' he said. 'Once you do fall in love, it is not that easy to pull out because it is not a game anymore and you have invested a lot of emotions into it already.' Hong Kong securities company employee Mike Champion, 42, found rekindled hope in love and marriage by romancing on the Net and meeting an American girl friend last June. After a five-month electronic courtship they met in her hometown for the first time shortly before Christmas. 'Since we both come from broken marriages, I feel we understand each other well,' he said. 'She is intelligent, lovely and sympathetic.' Of course some users bend the truth when it comes to listing their physical attributes and social status. 'But people will know whether they are trustworthy as they spend more and more time communicating,' he said. At 3am in Vancouver, Steven, a 37-year-old married businessman, replied to the Post's electronic request for information about Net liaisons by revealing that he was cruising for an extramarital affair. 'I will not lie to them about my marriage,' he said of his would-be conquests. 'So I need to be persuasive in order to meet unmarried girls.' Comparing affairs begun over the Net with relationships formed by pen-pals, Hong Kong sexual relations psychiatrist Ng Man-lun predicted they would become increasingly commonplace in the territory, with its estimated 50,000 Net users. 'For those too busy, shy, or who cannot express themselves well verbally in daily conversations, it is a good channel,' he said. 'Everyone is a stranger when they first meet. You can meet bad guys in daily life just as you can on the Net. 'No matter what channel they use, the risk is always there.' Annie Ng, a local Internet service provider, foresees a time when most dating services will be conducted on-line during the introductory phases of relationships. 'It is extremely easy to get into conversation with others on the Net,' she said. 'You can see some boys are rather aggressive in chasing girls through this channel. When they know each other, they send private messages and that eventually leads to dating.'