Like most things in life, online and offline dating involve risk. But most of the time, the risks associated with online dating are under your control or at least your direct influence. This month I want to review some of those key safety lessons. You might assume that these are all common sense or at least old hat by now. Not necessarily so. For whatever reason, the media continues to publish negative stories about online dating right along with success stories. Being aware of the risks is a good thing in the long run, and sometimes people don’t follow common sense guidelines. On the other hand, while it’s wise to have a balanced view on any topic, I have to wonder if many of the negative reports about online dating in the media are “forced” to some extent. What I mean is whether some stories are intentionally or unintentionally exaggerated or sensationalized just to make a good story. Or perhaps the media is simply regurgitating or responding to fear mongering or press releases that are spewed by certain sources for personal gain. After all, online dating success stories are rather common – and hence passé – so negative stories offer something new and controversial to present to readers and viewers.
The track record of online dating makes one fact crystal clear: online dating is generally very safe. Don’t believe any hype to the contrary. In fact, people apparently are quite vigilant when using dating websites, and I don’t think it’s overreaching to say that consumers are better at managing their own safety than handing that job over to the online dating sites. That doesn’t mean that online dating sites have no responsibility in assuring their products and services meet a reasonable level of quality – such as reviewing daters’ profiles for compliance with decency laws, investigating customer complaints on other users and reporting criminal activities to the authorities. But remember, no online dating site can guarantee safety. No site or dating service (online or offline) can or should even imply inherent safety. That’s what we call a “false sense of security” – plain and simple.
Rather than banking on the safety features of online dating sites, try taking matters into your own hands. The best way to protect yourself is not by relying solely on unreliable background checks; using only paid online dating sites or compatibility testing or taking at face value sites or services that use reputation management or feedback systems (users giving testimonials pro or con about other users). All of these tools can be part of your vigilance, but don’t trust any of them completely. They all can be gamed to some degree and hence are not reliable assurances of safety. No, the best way to be safe when online dating is to assume that everyone with whom you correspond is a potential threat and act vigilantly in return. In other words, keep your guard up with everyone at all times and that way no potential threat will go overlooked. It’s so simple, but few online daters actually seem to take this stance. It may seem negative or pessimistic to some, but to me it’s a pragmatic stance. There are other lessons as well… and these lessons should be learned and practiced in turn.
Lesson 1: "Ease on Down the Road"
When you’re first getting acquainted with someone it’s best to get to know them gradually by communicating via email and IM. Be on the lookout for any inconsistencies in your correspondence with someone or in their online profile – especially when they’re corresponding in real time such as with IM or over the phone. If you feel someone is lying or is not who they portray themselves to be, you’re probably right. Ask them to clarify their intentions in communicating with you and be prepared to talk honestly about your intentions as well. Remember, one advantage of online dating is that it allows you to collect information and carefully think through your dating decisions, and this is something one can’t do when meeting someone at a bar!
Potential warning signs include someone who:
1. Makes demeaning or inappropriate remarks
2. Provides inconsistent information about his/her age, appearance, marital status or employment
3. Refuses to provide a recent photo or series of photos
4. Refuses to talk on the phone as the relationship develops
Lesson 2: Protect Your Privacy
1. If you use a work or personal email account, your name may appear on any email you send. To get around this, we suggest you get a free email account (e.g. from Yahoo.com or Hotmail.com) and avoid using your last name. You may even want to use a different first name – try making up a fun nickname like “Swimmaster”. This nickname doesn’t need to be your screen name.
2. Some online dating sites provide you with an email account or IM features which allow you to protect your anonymity when communicating with other members. Other services also offer anonymous phone numbers for calling people you’ve met. These are really useful tools.
If you have been communicating with a potential date online and you have established enough trust to feel comfortable pursuing the relationship, the next logical step is to speak with them over the phone or via webchat or webcam features. Speaking with someone like this can give you more information about their social and communication skills – as well as a better idea of your connection and possibly chemistry (Do you like the sound of their voice? Does the conversation flow or is it a struggle?).
Some tips for maintaining your privacy via telephone include:
1. Use a payphone when you first talk with them.
2. If calling from home and are able to do so, prevent your phone number from showing up on caller ID.
3. Remember if you use your mobile phone, then your number can be displayed on caller ID unless you block it.
4. Some wireless services and/or cell phones offer a feature which hides your number when you make a call. Check with your wireless service to inquire about privacy features.
Instant Messaging (IMs)
Using an instant messaging service is a fun and efficient way to communicate with potential dates. Before you decide to use an instant messaging service on your home or work computer be aware of what information is displayed. Is your name displayed online? If so, you may want to make sure that you have an IM account with a nickname and no last name. Some IM services also offer blocking and parental controls. Review the privacy information available from your messaging service to find out how you can protect yourself.
Lesson 3: Think for Yourself
Many people can develop trust with others fairly quickly online, due to the greater amount of self-disclosure that takes place in email and chat communication. As a result, online relationships may develop at a faster pace than other romantic relationships. However, you may feel more comfortable proceeding slowly - determining the pace of the relationship is up to you. You decide when you’re ready to meet and when your gut tells you its right. Avoid letting anyone pressure you into a situation in which you are not comfortable. Set your boundaries and stick with them – and always trust your instincts. If you’re uncomfortable, there’s probably a good reason.
Revealing Personal Information
Use discretion when deciding what information to reveal about yourself. Don’t give out your last name, where you work, or what neighborhood you live in. It may be fine to reveal that you live in a big city, like Sydney, but avoid giving any more details, like “I live on the Northeast corner of 14th . . .”
Lesson 4: Plan Meetings in Person Very, Very, Carefully
Before deciding to meet in person, it’s a good idea to have several email and phone conversations with a potential date. In addition, the following questions can help you gauge when you are ready to meet offline:
1. From your phone/email conversations, do you feel you can trust him/her?
2. Do you feel confident that s/he is who they say there are?
3. Do you believe there’s potential for a relationship with this person? (if not, check your motives for meeting?)
4. What do your instincts tell you? If you’re not ready, what else do you need to feel comfortable meeting in person?
When you’re ready to meet someone in person, choose a public place such as a café or coffee shop, preferably during the day. Make sure you meet in an area that is both familiar and comfortable to you. You may want to keep the first meeting casual and brief (e.g. an hour). Use the following guidelines before making plans to meet:
1. Take your own car or transportation. Don’t offer to pick up your date or let them pick you up.
2. Tell a friend or family member about your plans and where you’ll be on your date.
3. You can have a friend sit at a nearby table in a coffee shop or café to keep an eye on you, if you would feel more comfortable.
4. Carry a mobile phone with you on the date for emergencies. Make sure it's charged.
5. Never leave your food or drink unattended.
6. When it’s time for the date to end, leave on your own. Avoid going straight home and drive to the store or another public place.