Online Dating Safety: What You Need To Know When Meeting Strangers Online
We used to caution our loved ones about the dangers of meeting people from the internet, but now we readily summon these strangers to deliver meals or take us home after a night on the town. More than ever, we’re using the internet to bring unknown people into our lives. According to industry research, about 40 percent of relationships start online and nearly a quarter of the U.S. uses rideshare services at least once a month. There’s also been an increase in the number of people using online apps and services to meet others for non-romantic connections, such as forming gaming groups, making friends, or just getting coffee.
Most of the time, meeting these people goes well, but that doesn’t mean that it’s without risk. It’s in your best interest to make sure you’re doing what you can to protect yourself when meeting strangers for the first time.
DO YOUR RESEARCH
First, perform a Google search of the person you’re intending to meet, including a reverse image search on their profile pictures. Unless they have a common name that returns too many results to be relevant, you should have some results to peruse. Not having a digital footprint isn’t a sure sign that someone is being dishonest, but it’s certainly a red flag — particularly if that person is using the internet to date, look for work, or run a business. Even if the meeting is meant to be fleeting, such as calling an Uber or ordering a delivery, it’s still worth it to look through reviews left by other users.
DON’T MEET IN A SECLUDED OR PRIVATE PLACE
According to FBI crime statistics, the majority of violent crime happens in places of privacy and quick escape such as private homes, streets, and parking lots. For this reason, it’s best to schedule your meeting in a public place that’s neutral and well known by both parties, if possible. Don’t hesitate to suggest an alternate location if you’re unfamiliar with any suggested meeting place.
While it makes sense that someone selling a couch would insist you pick it up at their home, it’s far more suspicious if they insist you meet at their home for coffee. It’s also suspicious if they agree to meet in public, but quickly begin pressuring you to go somewhere private. Even if privacy is the ultimate goal, it’s in your best interest to take things slow.
DO TAKE A FRIEND
If at all feasible and it makes sense for the interaction, take a friend with you. Doing so can help weed out potential scammers and predators. It can also give you a second, unbiased opinion on whether you should schedule a second date. People who intend you no ill will will be understanding, if not welcoming, of the tagalong — potential romantic partners included.
If bringing a friend isn’t possible for whatever reason, you can still use technology to allow your trusted friends or family to tag along at a distance. All smartphones now come equipped with the ability to share your location with trusted friends. You can even set your phone to notify them automatically if it arrives at or leaves a designated area. These features allow trusted friends to follow along with you without being physically present. While it’s no substitute for a real, live person, this can offer greater peace of mind to you and concerned loved ones.
HAVE YOUR OWN TRANSPORTATION
To ensure your independence and safety, have your own or a secondary form of transportation prepared for any meeting with someone you don’t know and trust. Even if the meeting is going well and you want to go somewhere else with the person you have met, tell them you’ll meet them there with your own transportation. Before you agree to go anywhere with anyone, confirm where you’re going and that you’ll have an independent and safe means to leave if it becomes necessary.
Even if you’re using a rideshare service, avoid asking or allowing them to take you anywhere you wouldn’t be able to summon another driver or walk to relative safety if you felt the need to cancel your current ride and exit the vehicle immediately for any reason.
HAVE AN EXIT STRATEGY
The best exit strategies are those that are impersonal and seem natural. If you aren’t comfortable telling a lie to get out of an uncomfortable situation, pick a meeting time immediately preceding another appointment. It gives you a legitimate reason to bail if things are going sideways and is a quick sign that something went wrong if you don’t show or cancel.
You can also ask a friend to check in with you periodically throughout the duration of your encounter. Ask your friend to be on the lookout for an innocuous phrase or text that, if heard or received, alerts them to interrupt you with an urgent excuse to bail early.
No matter what strategy you use, talk to your friends and family about your exit plan and what you’d like them to do in the event you don’t respond to calls or texts, fail to show up for your exit-strategy appointment, or enact some other plan. Make sure they’re willing and able to carry out those responsibilities.
DON’T RUSH IN
If it makes sense to do so, set up a video chat or a phone call before the meeting. When it comes time to actually meet, take some time to let your senses alert you to any warning signs before you rush in. Before you get in the car with a rideshare driver, take a moment to evaluate if the car looks like it’s in proper working order and matches the description and license number provided on the app. Before you proceed to knock on the door of the person you’re buying that dresser from, consider whether their home reflects someone who took care of the item you’re about to purchase. When you’ve finally met, pause your approach a foot or two further than conversational distance and give yourself a moment to evaluate them and the way they introduce themselves to you. These initial moments of reservation and reflection give you time to gather healthy first impressions and notice things that could alert you to possible danger.
DO PAY ATTENTION TO DETAILS
One of the most common ways that people fall victim to violent crime is to participate in criminal activities themselves, even unknowingly. Know the laws of what’s legal to buy or sell in your state and avoid any transactions of questionable legality that seem “too good to be true.” Don’t go places you’re not legally permitted to go or meet with people who (through your research) you’ve discovered engage in criminal behavior themselves.
DON’T IGNORE THE RED FLAGS
There are scores of red flags to be on the lookout for in any number of interactions, but if you can only be on the lookout for two, let them be confusion and boundary pushing. At its most benign, confusion is a precursor to hurt feelings, bad decisions, and questionable purchases. When used maliciously, it’s a tool to keep you off-balance, unaware, and unprepared for what’s to come. Even if it’s unintentional, if you’re feeling any confusion about who you’re meeting, why, or what you expect from the interaction, that should be a clear indication that you aren’t ready to meet.
Likewise, anyone who won’t respect your time, possessions, autonomy, or decisions is likely not someone you want to allow additional access into your life. Whether it’s a driver who wants to take you off-route, a seller who keeps changing the meeting time or purchase price, or a date who’s pressuring you to go back to his place, the end result is a lack of respect for you and for the agreements you made. Get yourself out while you can.
PREPARE TO DEFEND YOURSELF
The first step in preparing to defend yourself is acknowledging that, no matter how unlikely, the possibility of needing to protect yourself does exist. Take some time before your scheduled encounter to imagine how the interaction is supposed to happen and then try to imagine the most likely scenarios wherein you could be potentially victimized. For each scenario, think of how you might either avoid, escape, or prevail in those situations.
Your preparations may look different from someone else’s, and that’s OK. The important part is that you consider what’s accessible to you — legally, morally, and physically — when you need it most. If you choose a defensive tool, choose something designed for use against humans that’s legal to own and carry where you’re going and that you’re comfortable carrying and deploying. While a lot of emphasis is put on guns and knives in the personal protection industry, something as simple as a can of pepper spray shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s an affordable option that’s legal in all 50 states, sold at every major sporting goods retailer, and can be deployed in the broadest range of self-defense incidents without the risk of death or great bodily harm.
However, no matter what tool you may choose, commit yourself to understanding the laws surrounding its appropriate use and practice using the tool with a qualified instructor using appropriate safety measures.
More and more, we’re traversing the line between our digital and physical worlds. What was once “odd” behavior is now commonplace. Whether you’re first introduced to someone online or in meatspace, it’s important to be proactive about your safety. Plan ahead and, most importantly, trust your instincts, no matter where, when, or how you’re first introduced to new people.