Back in the early 1900s, a popular saying related to personal safety was widely circulated. Its message, “Carefulness costs you nothing. Carelessness may cost you your life.” Another maxim pertaining to the cost of maintaining one’s safety says it even more succinctly and pointedly, “Safety isn’t expensive, it’s priceless.”
In Discovering Love Online: Love May Be Closer Than You Think, I devote an entire chapter to the subject of personal safety, including how to protect yourself from financial scams and prevent identity theft. It’s that important to know when you begin to date online. This article, “Five Essentials for Online Dating Safety,” contains Chapter Three: Put Safety First in its entirety. Whether you choose to buy the book or not, it’s critical for you to have these safeguards at your fingertips. Consider it my gift to you. I hope you’ll find the following guidelines indispensable in your dating endeavors.
PUT SAFETY FIRST
In case you had doubts, online dating carries some inherent risks. News stories relate accounts of those duped out of large sums of money through romance scams and of women, in particular, assaulted by someone they met online. I’m not trying to induce paranoia or give you the heebie-jeebies, but the threats are real and you need to be extremely careful to avoid the wrong people in your search for Mr. or Mrs. Right.
Don’t assume, however, that the dangers associated with online dating are unique. They simply reflect the evils of our society. You could just as easily be in peril from an unprincipled individual you meet at a local mall, grocery store, library, fitness center, park, concert, restaurant or even your place of worship. It’s unfortunate, but true. Consequently, don’t let the reports you hear deter you from enjoying the rewards of online dating.
How should you respond to potential dangers? Start by keeping your wits about you and refrain from taking any unnecessary risks. Don’t reveal too much personal information and watch for telltale signs of those devious sorts who want to take advantage of you—scammers, players and predators. Before we even discuss setting up your profile, I’ll address these dangers and how you can guard yourself against them. Let’s begin by examining how to maintain control of your personal data.
Guard Personal Information
While it should go without saying, you need to guard how much personal information you disclose in your profile and share in communication with a potential mate. Unfortunately, as in the offline world, not everyone you meet online is honest. In fact, a large percentage of online daters lie both in their profiles and in their correspondence. According to the Pew Research Center, 54 percent of online daters “have felt that someone else seriously misrepresented themselves in their profile.”
We’re not talking about men and women who subtract a few years from their age or shave off a couple pounds of body mass, although many are guilty of these exaggerations in their profiles. I’m referring to unscrupulous characters who seek to separate you from your hard-earned money or, worse, attempt to cause you emotional and bodily harm. Sadly, purveyors of online romance scams and sexual predators abound, placing your personal and financial well-being at risk. How can you neutralize these threats and ensure your safety? By being especially cautious. Preventive safety begins with both what you choose to share and what you refrain from sharing with would-be suitors. Your motto should always be the age-old saying, “Better safe than sorry.”
Accordingly, safety dictates that you keep personal information to a minimum. Use only your first name or username in your profile and early correspondence. It’s unwise and unnecessary to include your surname. Although, and I’m addressing women here, you’ll eventually want to know your intended’s last name so you don’t unknowingly set yourself up to become a Carrie Oakey, Rose Bush, Shanda Lear or something even worse should your relationship blossom.
Omit all of your other personal contact information, as well. Never share your home or work address, email address or phone number in your profile or other forms of early communication. Keep your friends’ and relatives’ contact info private, too. For your own safety and theirs. Don’t disclose your social media presence just yet either. Not until someone has fully gained your trust. You don’t want to be friends with or followed by a date gone bad or stalker, do you?
You may also want to list your city of residence as the nearest major city and not your exact town. That makes it more difficult for others to unearth your personal data and helps guard against any inappropriate activity. You should take note, as well, that some services do a much better job than others of protecting your identity and privacy.
I also recommend setting up a separate email address for your dating service profile or using the internal email system if one’s available. Google’s Gmail, my personal recommendation, and Yahoo Mail are among the best free email services going. Using a dating-specific email address protects you against unwanted correspondence from those you choose to not communicate with regardless of your reasons. It can easily be canceled and replaced when needed.
Another excellent idea is to set up a free Google Voice account for date-related use. It redirects all incoming phone calls to your number of choice and allows you to place calls from your Google Voice account, hiding your personal number in the process. If you start receiving unwanted calls, simply block the offending number. As a benefit, your Google Voice phone service shares the same account with your dating email address, should you choose to go with Gmail, and the number can be easily rerouted if needed.
In a similar vein, if at any time in your correspondence you’re harassed or receive threats from a disgruntled dater, maintain a digital paper trail. Save emails, voice messages and chat logs that contain hostile remarks so you have evidence of this behavior to provide to the dating service and authorities, if necessary.
Remember, your safety is first and foremost. Don’t share any personal information until you feel entirely comfortable doing so. If someone balks at or ridicules your stance or tries to change your mind, they don’t have your best interests at heart.
Ignore Financial Pleas
While many people legitimately seek a life partner through online dating, unscrupulous characters lurk about seeking to prey upon the innocent. You need to safeguard yourself and your children, if you have any, from them. This includes charlatans of seduction who want to bilk you out of your hard-earned financial resources. Obviously, and I hope it is obvious, don’t send anyone you meet online any money…ever. Ignore their requests and report them to the online dating service immediately.
Almost 1.3 million complaints with regard to impostor scams, including romance ploys, were reported by consumers in 2016 according to the Federal Trade Commission, ranking second-highest in consumer complaints that year. Furthermore, the FBI reported that Americans were cheated out of $82 million in online-dating fraud just during the last six months of 2014 as related in Consumer Reports, a number that’s low since many victims don’t report the crime out of embarrassment. So, if someone you’ve never met in person asks you for money, you can bet they’re a con artist. Cease communication immediately.
Not only are scammers out to swindle the lonely-hearted, but identity thieves want to abscond with your personal data. By gaining access to enough identifying information, a criminal can assume your identity to conduct a wide range of transactions. They can apply for bank loans and credit cards, make fraudulent withdrawals from your accounts and obtain goods and services in your name. Once this happens, it can take an indefinite amount of time to clean up the mess.
How do you avoid these miscreants? First, be wary of potential matches that include only one or two photos of an individual who looks like an Olympic athlete or movie star, usually accompanied by an incomplete written profile. Other telltale indicators include those asking to bypass the dating service’s guided communication process, if it has one, or wanting to communicate via an outside email address or messaging service. Another ploy is claiming to be from the U.S. and currently traveling, living or working abroad, including deployed military personnel. References to “destiny” or “fate” bringing you together, claims of being recently widowed, requests for your address under the pretense of sending flowers or gifts, and emails containing links to questionable websites should all raise red flags.
Finally, in keeping with sound fiscal judgment, make yourself an unwavering promise to never give out financial information of any kind to someone you don’t know. Keep bank information, credit card numbers and your social security number to yourself. Never divulge usernames or passwords, either. Always remain in complete control of your personal information, as well as your online dating experience. In the early stages of a relationship, anonymity is your best friend.
Beware Emotional Piranhas
Of course, safety extends beyond financial scams. Fake personas not only allow married men and women to haunt online dating sites seeking a fling or an affair but players, too. These lowlifes toy with people’s thoughts and emotions while exploiting their vulnerability to get what they want. It usually amounts to a desire to exert power over another person, put someone else down to make themselves look better, seek a sexual outlet or some other self-serving purpose. Emotional piranhas promise everything and deliver nothing except for heartache, leaving you the worse for having allowed them into your life.
So, watch carefully for clues that you may be dealing with an untrustworthy individual. In addition to the cautions I mentioned above with regard to financial safety, keep a lookout for anyone who appears more interested in themselves than you. Be wary of those who only want to email or text, but not meet face-to-face. Or conversely, anybody who wants to move immediately to an in-person rendezvous. Also, beware of those who make grandiose promises, anyone who has been active on a dating site for an extremely long period of time (possibly years) and any individual who brings up inappropriate matters or wants to discuss sex with you before you’ve even met for a first date.
Again, I don’t mean to discourage you from seeking love via the Internet. I wouldn’t have written this book if that were true. I just want to caution you and encourage you to be careful.
Dodge Potential Predators
Dealing with predators is usually the first safety consideration that comes to mind for those venturing into the world of virtual dating, especially women. Unsurprisingly, according to a popular online poll, the greatest fear for women is that they’ll end up dating a serial killer. Not so with the guys, regardless of whether or not they’ve seen the film So, I Married an Axe Murderer. Humorously (or sadly, depending on your viewpoint), for the majority of men their chief concern is that their date will be fat.
Regardless of your fears, physical safety is a crucial and needful concern. Always meet your potential match in a public place and stay in public. Don’t ride with them in their vehicle or your own, and don’t follow them back to their residence or invite them to yours. Also, make sure a friend or family member knows your plans—who you’re meeting, when and where you’re going, and when you plan to return. Then, check in with them afterward. If you’re a bit unsure about the person you’re meeting, ask someone to go along with you. Arrive early and have them sit nearby so they can call you if you need to “excuse yourself” from your date.
Items containing personal information like day planners, purses and cell phones should be kept with you at all times, including short trips to the restroom. Keep your cell phone charged in case you need to use it. And, stay sober. However, if you choose to imbibe, and some of you will, keep that drink in sight to prevent tampering. That includes non-alcoholic beverages, too.
For those engaging in a long-distance relationship, a few added precautions should be observed. Stay in a hotel, not with your prospective mate. Keep the location confidential, too. Check into your room before you see each other for the first time and choose a public setting for your meeting as you would with any first date. Not the hotel bar or restaurant, but somewhere off-site.
If you can’t afford a hotel, don’t make the trip. Suggest that they do the traveling instead. Finally, secure your own ride. Either rent a car or use a taxi. To reiterate the above, never get into a personal vehicle with someone you’ve never met before.
As a general safety precaution, women should always carry a means of self-protection. At a minimum, keep a pocketable defense spray such as Mace Triple Action Pepper Spray in your purse or pocket (it’s what I purchased for my wife and step-daughters). Taking a self-defense course is advisable, too, whether you’re dating or not. Of course, many men and women are opting to carry a concealed handgun. If you decide to follow this route, please get proper training on its operation and use. In any case, don’t carry a firearm unless you’re prepared to use it.
Always watch for warning signs including, among other things, anyone who doesn’t show up at the designated time and place, or won’t provide you with a phone number to call if you end up running late or get lost. Beware of someone with an inordinate amount of spelling and grammatical errors in their profile. Don’t jump to conclusions if a problem arises, but pay attention to any emerging patterns. Catching anyone in one or more lies is cause to block them and cease contact, as well as excuse yourself if you’re with them in person.
Further, if you think a date is following you post rendezvous, don’t try to “lose them” on the way home. It could lead to an accident. You don’t want to show them where you live either. Instead, head for the nearest authorities (know the location ahead of time). You simply can’t be too careful.
Perform Due Diligence
Some dating experts recommend hiring a private investigator to run background checks on matches. If you fall for someone big time yet have concerns about anything that just doesn’t add up, it could be a worthwhile investment. However, in the initial stages of correspondence with potential life partners, I believe it’s overkill. Instead, I suggest performing your own free background checks by utilizing available search tools and social media services. And, please do so before your first date.
In regard to online searches, Google is your go-to tool for checking on potential matches. Of course, it works best if you can acquire a full name without giving yours away in the process. But, if the person you’re corresponding with doesn’t want to disclose their surname early on, you can still engage in research using other available information. Helpful data to know includes a first name, city of residence (current and past), place of birth, and their employer or the type of work they pursue. You should be able to glean most of these tidbits through your pre-date correspondence. Facebook and LinkedIn profiles may also provide worthwhile information if the person in question makes use of those social media services. Instagram is becoming quite popular, as well.
Several other no-cost search tools are available from Intelius. Options provided for performing your own simple background investigations include a basic People Search, Reverse Phone Lookup, Criminal Records Search, Background Check, Public Records Search and Reverse Address Lookup. Obviously, the data Intelius provides is rudimentary, their goal being to persuade you to pay for detailed reports. Still, what you can discover for free may be worth the time invested. It certainly doesn’t hurt to try.
If you elect to purchase paid reports from Intelius or a similar provider, please read the fine print carefully. Some services are subscription-based and choosing them will enroll you in their automatic renewal program. Formerly, the Better Business Bureau identified a pattern of complaints from consumers about billing issues, mostly from those unaware of ongoing monthly fees when making a one-time purchase.
Google’s Reverse Image Search Tool and TinEye’s Reverse Image Search may prove helpful, as well. Just drag and drop a profile picture into the search window on either of these web-based services and if the image appears anywhere else online you’ll know momentarily. Both are valuable tools you can use to verify if your potential match’s profile photo just looks like an actor or model, or if it actually belongs to one.
In all fairness, remember that I previously stated you shouldn’t disclose any unnecessary personal information in the early stages of communication. That makes it rather unfair to ask someone else to share that info with you and then not disclose your own. Still, they may choose to do so freely when corresponding with you. So, take notes!
As you perform your detective work, pay attention to anything that looks suspicious and address it before you meet in person. If you receive a dubious response or have any bad feelings about a prospective match, cease communication. If anyone dodges your questions or refuses to share personal information with you at all, there’s probably a reason and it’s likely not good. Either they’re not really committed to finding a life partner or they may be trying to hide something. If so, it’s best to simply move on.
Finally, if your potential match seems to have everything going for him or her including good looks, prestige, money, expensive possessions and a long list of accolades, be wary, particularly given the above. If someone sounds too good to be true, well, you know the rest.
I can’t urge you strongly enough, gals especially, to date safely. Any cause for concern that arises or gut feelings you can’t shake should be taken into account. Don’t give in to the fear of missing the One by moving forward with anyone you have strong doubts about. Additionally, those of faith can seek further discernment and wisdom from God. “Ask and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7), right? In the end, however, it’s your call. Make it a good one.