Advice abounds on how to stay safe when meeting strangers from the Internet for the first time in the interest of romance, love, or a purely physical attraction.
We've heard it often: meet in a public place, let a friend know where you’re going, use your own transportation. We might even have escape plans: “Call me at 8 with a fake emergency just in case I need to bail.”
Most of the time, we are worried that the person won’t match their pictures or we won’t have any real-world chemistry. Sometimes, there’s an underlying uneasiness that we mistakenly made a date with someone creepy or weird, but not actively harmful.
Even so, we are all generally aware of the possibility that someone dangerous might be targeting us, so we try to do the smart things to stay safe on that first coffee date.
However, there are fewer suggestions on how to stay safe while we are still swiping. While the risks associated with online dating seem far removed before agreeing to a real-world meeting, problematic situations can happen before you even decide to swipe right.
If you’ve never thought about it before, here are some concepts you need to keep in mind:
What’s Your Name Again?
You don’t necessarily have to use a fake name on a dating site, but you might want consider it if you have a particularly distinctive name or nickname. Even if you follow every other tip here, keeping the same username you have on other social media sites could make it easy for someone to find out more about you than you intended. At the very least, consider locking down your social media to friends-only while you’re active on dating apps. Better yet, pick a unique name just for online dating, making sure you don’t include your last name or any one-of-a-kind variations of your name.
What Did You Say?
Whether it’s in your profile or as part of a chat with someone who piques initial interest, be careful how much information you share. It’s exciting to discover an engaging person with similar hobbies and experiences, but consider how much of your life you want to share to a total stranger. It’s not just that sharing your deepest, darkest secrets requires a lot of trust, it’s that they can give clues about where you live, work, and spend your free time. Enough of those hints can allow an overeager suitor to show up before you’re ready or where they’re not wanted. You’ll especially want to be careful if your job comes with a public persona that could make you easier to find outside of whatever app or dating site you’re using.
What’s In the Mirror?
Before posting a cute selfie, you need to look at everything else in the photo. You’re not just making sure that you look perfect; you also need to make sure you’re not letting folks see more than you want them to see. If you live in a distinctive neighborhood, the view out the window could help someone track down your apartment. The stickers on the back of your laptop might out you as a gun girl, and perhaps someone with valuables to steal. Your kid’s face in the background might introduce him or her to another user on the site long before you’re ready. Look at every detail, and make sure it’s something that you’re comfortable letting a complete stranger know about you. Even if the person looking at your profile doesn’t recognize a detail immediately, tools such as reverse image search engines can help a motivated person track you down.
Can We Talk More?
There are a lot of reasons why moving from online attraction to a real life meeting may take a while. With busy schedules, let alone quarantines and stay-home orders, it can be hard to actually get around to that first date. You may spend quite a bit of time chatting online with a person who seems more fascinating by the hour, as you share more and more. It can be a great way to learn about each other, but it can also be a great way for someone to draw out increasingly personal and intimate information from you without sharing any real information of their own. So take a pause between messages, and think about whether you’re comfortable telling a virtual stranger what you’re typing, especially if you haven’t met yet and aren’t sure that they are who they say they are. This is especially important if the other person is starting to ask you to send them money or gifts. You may think you’ve met your soulmate, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to start sending them cash to come visit you.
Let’s Move Somewhere More Comfortable ...
Dating site messaging options can be limited and awkward to use, and they’re often not integrated into the half-dozen chat apps you already use on a regular basis. It’s common to want to move to a more familiar platform once you’ve decided that someone interests you, but it’s not always the smartest move. If you use social media messaging, you will almost certainly have to give that person access to your profile. Unless you have very specific security and privacy settings, doing that will give them the ability to read everything you’ve ever posted, including information about your friends and possibly your workplace. If you give them your cell phone number, it may be connected online to your street address. All of that information can be used to embarrass or harass you if your budding relationship goes sour, or to manipulate you into getting more deeply involved that you would otherwise want.
Oops, I Didn't Mean To Do That!
Now that I’ve thoroughly scared you, let me remind you that most people on dating sites aren’t creepy weirdos who may turn into stalkers at any moment. Odds are pretty good that the person who swiped right and sent you a message is no worse than awkward. They might not be very nice if you decide they’re not for you, but they probably won’t go beyond some nasty messages that you can delete before blocking them from your dating profile, messaging app or cell phone. It is never too late for you to go back to your dating sites and clean up your bio and photos. Starting today, be more mindful about the information you give out. Anything you remove now will make you immediately safer, so you can focus on finding your next hot date or true love.
About the Author: Annette Evans is the Beauty Behind the Blast and founder of "On Her Own," a project for women navigating the world solo. When not studying shooting and self-defense, she is a competitive shooter who goes to the gym too much. Annette is also an NRA- and Rangemaster-certified firearms instructor, author of “The Dry Fire Primer,” and a commercial attorney in her spare time. Her cat's name is Tuna.