Documentaries such as The Tinder Swindler, The Craigslist Killer, Catfish, and Murder on the Internet have gained a great deal of attention recently because they all boil down to one lesson — interacting with others online doesn’t come without risk. The individuals you may come into contact with run the gamut from just plain dishonest to seriously disturbed. When it comes to finding companionship, many consider online dating to be the best resource. However, reading the virtues someone listed on their profile page is in no way, shape, or form a thorough assessment of their level of honesty. Whether you’re meeting someone to purchase an item you saw for sale online or taking a chance on a potential love interest you met on a dating site, you need to have a plan in mind in case this person tries to lure you into a trap.
The Online Dating Scenario
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The Setup: Let’s face it, you can pretend to be whoever you want over the internet, and lots of people do. The days of placing a personal ad in the newspaper to find love have evolved into a slew of dating sites, all with their own supposed formulas for pairing you up with Mr. or Mrs. Right. Even if you’ve never signed up for online dating, social media profiles allow a certain amount of sensitive info to be disclosed to the prying eyes of unknown people. Strangers who send private messages and friend requests may have a legitimate interest in meeting someone special, or might be completely nefarious in their intentions. If you’ve decided you want to find companionship by looking for love on the internet, it doesn’t come without risks. How do you vet someone you met over the internet and get them to prove their intentions are honorable, without completely shutting yourself off from online interaction with people you haven’t met face to face?
The Complication: You use the typical social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, but it has been a few years since your divorce and you’re looking to meet new people. So, after some persuasion from your friends, you’ve also decided to try a dating website to solicit interest in finding someone special. You create a profile and immediately start getting hits from people who want to meet you. Some are immediate throwaways because of the vulgarity of their messages, profile info, photos, and overall approach. After narrowing it down to a couple of individuals who seem like they might be worth meeting, you decide it’s time to start making arrangements to meet in person. What should you do to mitigate the risks involved in meeting a potential love interest for the first time? How can you determine they’re not dangerous without ruining your shot at romance, and what will you do if you start seeing possible red flags?
Firearms Blogger Monica Newman’s Approach
In most situations in life, I aim to strike a balance between being my authentic self and ensuring my own safety. The same goes for online dating — it can be a fine and complex line, but is easily approached with intuition, situational awareness, and a few boundaries. Online dating requires the right mindset to be successful and to keep myself safe. Each time I’ve approached online dating, I make sure I’m going into it with a clear mind and a clear intention. Knowing what I want and what I don’t want is essential.
My online dating profile provides just enough information to show a potential suitor what kind of person I am without divulging anything too personal. I make sure my dating profile doesn’t include my full name, where I work or go to school, the specific area I live in, any establishments that I frequent, or my social media profiles. I also make sure not to include any information or photos of my friends and family. Many dating apps provide the option to link to Instagram, Spotify, or other social media accounts — this is a no-go for me, as this provides the opportunity for a stranger to collect even more information about me. While these precautions should prevent someone from finding my social media profiles, I also ensure that those other social media profiles are private, don’t have the same username or photo as my dating profile, and don’t include any public-facing information about myself, my friends, or my family.
Following setting up my own profile, I establish rules and boundaries regarding my interactions on dating apps to help protect myself and more easily rule out those who won’t be a good fit. For example, if someone’s profile includes references to drugs, illegal activities, or a lifestyle that doesn’t align with mine, it’s an automatic pass. If someone demonstrates aggressive behavior or lack of respect in messages, it’s an automatic pass. If someone shows no interest in meeting in person or too much interest in meeting in person, it’s an automatic pass. And so on.
I surely do a little research on a potential suitor, but rather than extensively vetting someone I’ve met online (which can prove to be quite difficult if they’re ensuring their own online safety, as I am), I look for clues about the person based on how they present themselves and how they communicate with me. If someone is being disingenuous, misrepresenting themselves, or seeking information I’m not willing to give, there are usually indicators, even if they’re subtle. Sometimes this can present in the way they communicate, or by way of inconsistent or contradictory information or behavior. Sometimes it’s simply a gut feeling that something isn’t quite right. If something feels off, it probably is, and it’s important to listen to that feeling. In any situation where I feel like something isn’t right or if I feel my online match won’t be a good fit for any reason, I immediately excuse myself from the conversation by unmatching or blocking that person. There’s no need to waste my time or energy on that situation.
If I feel compelled to meet someone in person, I approach the situation as a “zero date.” This is a concept I came across in a TED Talk years ago, and I find it quite brilliant. I interpret a zero date as a short, casual meeting intended to evaluate if I jive with this person in real life, if I want a real first date with this person, and if I feel safe with this person (keep in mind, chemistry and feeling safe don’t always match). My approach to the zero date allows me to safeguard myself and my time.
I have a few requirements for a zero date, with my safety in mind:
- I time-block a zero date to one hour. This gives me enough time to achieve the goal of a zero date and also gives me an easy out if it goes south — I’m not committed to a whole meal, event, or evening with someone.
- I schedule the date during daylight hours. Not only does this take a lot of pressure off, but it also removes the safety concerns that come with darkness.
- I make sure alcohol is not a factor. Happy hour or wine tasting can be fun with the right person, but introducing mind-altering substances on a first meeting is a recipe for disaster. I keep a clear mind so I can maintain situational awareness and tap into my intuition during the date.
- I pick the location. More on this below.
I’ve found the process of making plans is when someone’s true colors start to show, so I pay close attention to how they handle the situation. There are a few red flags that I look out for:
- Being extra difficult about making plans. Everyone’s busy and it can be hard to find a time to meet, but it shouldn’t be too hard. If someone is extra difficult when making plans, it can be an indicator that something isn’t right.
- Insisting upon meeting at a particular location of their choosing or not being open to my suggestions.
- Getting upset when I won’t let them pick me up. A chivalrous gentleman will want to pick a lady up for a date, but he will also be understanding when I want to meet there instead.
- Changing the agreed upon-location last-minute. Absolutely a no-go for me. If a date tries to change the location last minute, I politely bow out. Things happen and this isn’t always a red flag (in which case, we can reschedule) … but it certainly can be.
- Not being OK with an alcohol-free date (like meeting for coffee) or insisting upon getting drinks. This leads me to wonder about their intentions (among other things), and I don’t want any part of that.
I can usually weed out a lot of the creepers with the strategies above, but you never know what you’re going to get when it comes to online dating. I proceed with caution and a plan, but I typically don’t go into a zero date with a list of interview questions. I find that it’s easier to really get a sense of who a person is if the conversation is less scripted. I do, however, make sure we are on the same page about what we want out of dating and aligned on what we want out of life, in broad strokes. Those details can shine light on the type of person someone is, what they value, and what their intentions are.
To continue to maintain my safety on a zero date, as well as the first few dates after that, I employ a few more strategies in addition to what I mentioned above.
I don’t exchange contact information and keep all communications isolated to the dating app until I know for sure I want to continue dating someone beyond the first few dates. If something goes wrong, if I don’t feel comfortable with the person, or if I don’t want to see them again for any reason, not exchanging contact information makes it easy to cut ties, as well as maintain my privacy and safety. If the situation calls for it, keeping all communications within the app makes it easier to report the person to the dating app or the authorities.
I choose the location for the first few dates, and I make sure it’s a populated place that I am familiar with, but not one that is a part of my usual daily routine — for example, a cafe across town that I like to go to, but not one that is in my immediate neighborhood or where I stop for coffee on my way to work. Bonus points if I know the staff and am familiar with a back exit. I avoid secluded locations, parts of town I’m unfamiliar with or don’t feel safe in, and outdoor locations like parks where there aren’t employees around that can help if something goes wrong.
I tell at least one local friend or family member the time and place of the meeting, and when they should expect to hear back from me. I also send them screenshots of my date’s profile and photos, along with any other pertinent information that may come in handy, just in case. I let them know once the date is over and once I am home safely.
I always meet the person at the agreed-upon location and I don’t move the date to a second location, even if it’s going well. I do not ever let someone pick me up or give me a ride home for the first few dates, and I won’t pick them up or give them a ride either. Again, this is a privacy and safety measure, gives me some control over the situation, and enables me to quickly get out if I need to.
I’m intentional about my parking strategy. I park in a place where I can make a quick and easy getaway if I need to, and always back into the parking space to make it easier to leave. I try not to park directly in front of the establishment where I’m meeting my date so that my vehicle isn’t visible from the date, but I do try to park in front of a neighboring establishment where there are witnesses and/or surveillance. As always, I avoid parking garages and make sure to park in well-lit, populated areas.
In addition to the parking strategy, I don’t let my date walk me to my car. Again, a gentleman will want to do so, but this can also put me in a very vulnerable position. I say goodbye at the door of the establishment where we met, and am on my way. This also helps me avoid the painfully awkward car-side goodbye.
I always carry a concealed self-defense tool on my person that I am trained and prepared to use (another reason to go sans-alcohol). I hope to never have to use my defense tool, but I absolutely won’t go without it when meeting up with a stranger from the internet.
All of this to say, my most important strategy for online dating is to listen to my intuition, use my situational awareness skills, and respond accordingly. There are almost always signs if something is off, and we simply cannot ignore those signs!
International Traveler Micah McQueen’s Approach
I remember the stigma that was attached to internet dating when I first tried it out. It has come a long way since its debut in 1995 when it was often considered “cringe” and “unsavory.” Even when I first tried it, about 10 years ago, everyone was leery and told me to be careful I didn’t wake up in a bathtub of ice missing a kidney. Back then, we were cautioned not to get into cars with strangers or to meet up with people we had met online. I got lucky — I didn’t lose a kidney. But I did meet a woman who spent the whole night trying to convince me her cat was psychic. However, the very fabric of our societal norms has shifted with the proliferation of the internet and easier access to technology. In fact, most of us get into strangers’ cars every weekend using ride-share apps to meet up with strangers from the internet. There’s no denying it, the landscape of dating has changed with the use of social media and our digital identity. In fact, most of my friends have met their significant others through some social media platform or dating app.
Our lives lately consist of being constantly “plugged in” through apps, email, and constant news updates. So, anyone hunting for love or companionship in this modern age will find themselves in the digital watering hole that is social media and dating apps. Online dating is a great way to meet new potential mates and form new friendships. But these people are still strangers. The instant intimacy we can feel in a small period of time can be exciting, but if we don’t protect ourselves, it can also be dangerous. But don’t fear, I am here to help. I’m going to highlight several things you can do to protect yourself, your privacy, and your loved ones, on this grand adventure of digital love.
There are over 1,500 different dating apps now. Some of the bigger ones are Bumble and Tinder, depending on what you’re looking for. So, first of all, when you’re creating your profile, make sure you’re being honest with what you want and maintain that congruence to ensure you find someone who has similar expectations. Here are some steps you should take to assure your safety from anyone who is looking to take advantage of this interesting love-seeking process.
1. Protect Your Personal Information
In this day and age of modern technology, a first and last name and general geographical area can yield an uncomfortable amount of information for less than $10. Make sure that you aren’t using your full name in any of your dating profiles. Be intentionally vague about what you do and where you live. You should never post your company’s name or pictures of yourself wearing a name badge or shirt with your work logo embossed across the front. The last thing you need is a missed connection showing up to your job with the undeniable proof that her cat is truly psychic. In addition, I know you want to flex with your shiny new car, but make sure you’re blurring out the license plate and cropping out any street signs that might show your residence or neighborhood. These sites have built-in communication platforms, so you should always wait until you have met in person before exchanging phone numbers. Another added layer of personal security is making sure you’ve disabled your phone camera’s location-tracking feature before uploading photos to the internet. Go to your privacy settings, then go to camera and disable the geo tag, which can show where the picture was taken.
2. Do Your Due Diligence
There’s a difference between stalking and doing some light research to catch any obvious red flags before you meet up and invest your time, money, and energy. A simple search can make sure the person isn’t misrepresenting themselves or hiding things like a secret family or a criminal record. Just like you might check up on an ex-lover after a break-up, do the same digging before you even meet up with a stranger.
When meeting anyone new, it’s important to share your location with a friend or family member just in case. Furthermore, communication to a friend about your plans will allow you the opportunity for an exit strategy if the date is off, dangerous, or just not going how you would like it to. Set up a call or text an hour into the date that gives you the opportunity to leave due to an “emergency.”
3. The Meetup
So, you finally found someone you click with and feel that there’s potential for something more. Pick a spot that’s public and central to your location. Bring a book or have some work with you while you wait, that way if they no-show it’s not a total waste of your time. Always have your own transportation. You never want to be at the mercy of someone else and potentially get stuck somewhere if a dangerous situation arises.
A local coffee shop is a safe and great place for an initial meetup. This is an inexpensive, low-pressure scenario that’s perfect for making sure your date is who they say they are and that you can carry over that online chemistry in person. If this is the case, take the initiative by having a second spot in mind (like a local bar), where you can escalate the evening. That way, you don’t leave yourself open to the pressure of going to his/her favorite bar that you may not be familiar with. At the second spot, you can get into the delicate details of each other’s lives, such as toxic personal relationships with a crazy ex, or delve deeper into your connection.
Alcohol is a fantastic social lubricant that can help you and your date relax and open up more freely and often more honestly. That being said, never drink to the point where your judgment is impaired. Remember, you’re still in a “yellow zone” as far as your safety is concerned. Drinking too much can jeopardize the date, as well as your safety and ability to react if something does happen. Once you get to the bar and have built a rapport, this is when you can start pre-screening to make sure they are who they said they are. Pay attention to how they treat the servers or bartenders. People like to represent themselves to you as who they think you want to see. But how they treat other people is a real measure of character and can be a red flag for safety. A lot of people don’t mention kids at first, so this is a good time to ask.
4. Trust Your Gut
If something feels off, it usually is. Don’t wait around and give in to the social pressure to hang out if something doesn’t feel right. People forget that we are animals first and have an innate ability to sense when something is wrong, even if we can’t quite nail down what it is. If you catch them in a lie about something small, this may be an indicator of other manipulations and deceit. Don’t be afraid to politely, yet firmly, end the encounter in a friendly manner. If you get the feeling your date might get unreasonably upset, use the trusty Irish Exit (for those who don’t know what that is, it means leave without saying goodbye). It isn’t anything personal, and your safety is the most important factor here. This is why not giving out your number or address, and using your own transportation is imperative if the person is not someone you are interested in getting further involved with. Again, safety over everything.
5. Slow and Steady
If the date is going well and the vibe is there, the first inclination is often to take it to the next level physically and emotionally. Everyone can be charming and personable the first time you meet them. You’re essentially meeting their best representation of who they want to be. Slow it down. Instead of jumping in, inviting them to your house, and exposing yourself to the potential danger of them knowing where you live, hold off for a second date. This will help you be certain that you’re really seeing them for who they are. In this day and age of instant gratification and connection, taking your time and really getting to know someone will not only protect you from physical harm, but can also protect you from emotional catastrophe. If it’s a real connection, you’ll have plenty of time to get to know each other. In terms of your safety, this is a solid strategy. Set up a second date constructed around your shared commonalities and make sure they are someone that’s well-balanced and safe.
If you follow these simple steps, they will secure your safety, and that of your loved ones, from people who have ulterior motives or that you just don’t vibe with. Bottom line is if you are congruent with what you want and make safety a priority, there’s plenty of fun to be had in the world of online dating.
We all want to make a good first impression with someone we’re dating, but don’t be in a hurry to do too much too soon. Let them prove themselves to you as well. Think of it like a job interview. Sure, you want the job, but you also want to make sure you’re getting what you want out of the deal. Ask pointed questions, don’t be afraid to say no, and hold out until you feel like your requirements are being met. If you feel like the only way you’ll get someone to like you is to capitulate to their conditions, all you’re doing is showing the world how naïve you are. In doing so, predators will descend on that vulnerability like a plague of locusts.
Setting boundaries should never provoke shame, guilt, and pressure from someone you’ve met online. Anyone reacting like that is likely trying to take advantage of you. Would you allow a friend to treat you like that? We didn’t think so. If you would, you don’t need to be dating anyone — you need to be in therapy. Be your own advocate and make safety your number-one priority. People with honest intentions will respect your desire to maintain those precautions. If you let your guard down too soon, you might find that the people you’re attracting are the ones who have anything but romance on their mind.
Meet Our Panel
Monica Newman is the founder of Pinot+Pistols, a lifestyle blog dedicated to two of her favorite hobbies — wine and guns — and various aspects of life related to those topics. It all began as a way to share her explorations of Oregon’s Willamette Valley Wine Country, as well as her journey into all things gun ownership, concealed carry, and self-reliance. These topics can be intimidating, but Monica aims to make them approachable and encourages others (especially women) to expand their knowledge and capabilities in a way that’s attainable, fun, and safe.
Micah McQueen is a global adventurer, photographer, travel writer, and social media presence. Told at a very young age by his grandmother that he had “gypsy blood,” he hasn’t stayed in one spot since. A bona fide travel addict, his adventures have taken him to over 50 countries and countless adventures. When he’s not writing or taking pictures, you’ll find him making friends in the back of a dusty bus or drinking whiskey in a corner of a dark bar with dangerous men. Starting soon, he’ll be offering specialized travel education and travel safety courses to assist the average person in developing an overall greater awareness while they travel and emphasize the importance of structured endemics when planning trips. Not only will the program provide a foundation of basic safety tips and information you can readily incorporate, but will also equip you to quickly and effectively deal with any problems you will likely encounter. You can find him on Instagram at @classicmcqueen_.
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