Protecting Yourself in the Online Dating World
Last week in this space I wrote about ways you can successfully date and even meet that special someone via online dating, provided you understand from the start that successful Internet dating can often be more like a part-time job than a recreational activity. In addition to this proviso, my advice basically boiled down to the following:
- Be honest and specific about who you are (age, looks, etc.), as well as who/what you are seeking.
- Be persistent, even if your first few dates don’t go so well. It can take as many as 25 or more casual dates a year (!) to meet the right person.
- Be safe. Don’t feel pressured into meeting a stranger in a private location and don’t send out photos of yourself that you wouldn’t want your boss or coworkers to view, should someone choose to post them online.
That last bit-safety-is the focus of this week’s blog. After all, it’s no secret that there are some nefarious individuals lurking on Internet dating and hookup sites and apps, searching for all sorts of potential victims. As in real life, these individuals are a small minority of the online population, but they do exist. Anyone choosing to go down the path of online dating should do so with his or her eyes fully open.
A simple fact of being human is that even when offered only words, photos, and perhaps a short video or two as an introduction, it is not difficult for the emotionally needful person to fall into unrealistic fantasy about someone he or she has not even met. The emotions evoked by this kind of interaction can feel much like “falling” for someone. And this projection of fantasies and needs onto a neutral or encouraging image is exactly what Internet predators rely on to take advantage of vulnerable people!
Who Are the Bad Guys?
Dating site villains essentially fall into two main categories: sexual predators and financial scammers. The sexual predators woo their potential victims with romantic chats and instant messaging, encouraging emotional dependency while pretending to be their victim’s “perfect match.” Through an intricate web of lies they build relationship trust before they suggest meeting in person. Finally, when the victim is hooked, they spring their trap by convincing the vulnerable person (of either gender) to meet them at their home or in some remote setting. Sadly, many individuals lured into such situations will not report an experience gone bad. Sometimes individuals who’ve been sexually abused will report feeling too embarrassed about having put themselves into such a situation to report it, or, worse, they will blame themselves for not having known better.
Financial scammers also spend much of their time and effort building trust and encouraging the emotional dependency of their potential victims-often more than one person at a time. They get someone to fall for them by a gradually escalating the emotional tone of the communication, waiting until the other person feels sufficiently tied into the “relationship” that they can start asking for gifts and money. Some of these individuals prey on our natural instincts to be a good person, to help a loved one in need, while others prey on our fears of abandonment by requesting a concrete (financial) demonstration of our commitment to further secure the romance. Many romance scam perpetrators operate out of foreign countries, particularly West Africa, with Nigeria and Ghana the epicenter of such behavior. Russia and the Philippines are other popular dating scammer locales. Since the locations of these types of abuse have become more commonly known, financial predators now often pretend to be from the UK, Australia, or some other innocuous sounding country.
How Do They Get You?
The most common Internet dating financial scams are:
- The Emergency: The perpetrator spends weeks, perhaps months, bonding with you. Then, usually while he or she is purportedly traveling in a foreign country (on business, a charity mission, etc.), he/she is suddenly in the midst of an emergency. Oftentimes the crisis is medical in nature. Typically the scammer needs emergency surgery for himself/herself or a family member who lacks insurance. At that point you are asked to wire a large sum of money because the scammer’s funds are “tied up” for some reason.
- The Golden Ticket: With this scam, that charming foreigner you’ve chatted with for weeks or maybe even months finally wants to meet you in person. Unfortunately, he or she is just a little short on the money needed for plane ticket or visa. You send the money, but your dream date never arrives and never contacts you again. In a variation of this scam, the perpetrator does not initially ask for money to complete his/her travel plans, and even emails you scanned copies of the (fake) ticket he/she has already purchased. Then, at the last minute, you are asked to send a large sum of money to cover an unexpected expense, without which the trip will not be possible.
- The Spanish Prisoner: This is also known as “the Nigerian 419″ and “the Advance Fee.” Here, usually after spending weeks or even months romancing you and earning your trust, the scammer promises to share a large sum of money with you. The story varies, but usually the person has access to a small fortune in money/bonds/stolen jewels/etc. and he or she needs “bribe money” to “get the wealth out of the country.” You send the money, and you never hear from your online lover again.
- The Fake Po-Po: Sometimes scammers realize you’re onto them, but instead of backing off, they contact you through another email and pretend to be the police. The fake police tell you they’re closing in on the scammer but they need a payment from you before they can arrest the perp. FYI: In no country will the actual police request money to catch a criminal! The fake police might also ask you for your bank account number or other financial information that they can use to “trap” the criminal. Your understandable hurt and indignation at having been used by an unscrupulous person is sometimes all the emotion needed to further entrap you.
- The Money Order: Again, the scammer spends weeks or months building relationship trust. After a bond is formed, the scammer sends a money order to you, asking you to cash it and wire the money back. Usually the scammer says he or she is working in a foreign country for a Western company and cannot cash money orders there. A lot of people fall for this one because it seems legit. Unfortunately, the money orders are doctored (a $20 money order altered to show a sum of $2000, for instance). A day or two after you cash it and wire the money, the bank detects the forgery, and you become liable for the cash lost, not to mention the embarrassment of being used.
- The Snapshot: This is a basic blackmail scam. The seducing individual (usually in another country) romances you, builds your trust, and, by providing all the right cues, convinces you you’re in a meaningful relationship. In time, he or she tells you that a plane ticket has been purchased to finally meet, and your longed-for contact is about to become a reality. Anxious to consummate the relationship and “overwhelmed by the excitement of finally meeting in person,” this online darling dares to ask you for a few “intimate photos”-something he or she can hold dear on the plane ride into your arms, so to speak. Once armed with these potentially embarrassing and highly personal images, he or she then threatens to email them to your boss, coworkers, family, etc., unless of course you cough up the money to get them back.
Tips for SAFE Online Dating
The vast majority of people with online dating and/or hookup profiles are sincere in their desire to meet a long-term partner, lover, casual sex partner, or even a new friend. But that doesn’t mean you won’t inadvertently run into someone who intends you more harm than good. The good news is that, provided you take some simple steps to protect yourself, dating online presents no more potential harm than meeting a stranger on the barstool next to you. And there are a number of precautions, listed below, that you can take to protect yourself and/or pass along to others who are putting themselves out there in cyberspace.
- Meet in a public place. Unless your goal is a casual sexual hook-up, your first several meetings with a potential mate are best held in a public space like a coffee shop, mall, or café. It is also a good idea to find your own way to that venue. That way, you’re less likely to get trapped in someone else’s car for a premature make-out session or driven somewhere you’d rather not go. Even if your goal is casual sex, it is best to first meet in a public place, to let friends know where you are going to be, etc. NEVER initially meet a stranger at your home or theirs (no matter how long you’ve chatted or how good the interaction feels). In reality, that person may end up looking and acting very differently than the person you “met” online.
- Let others know of your plans. For the first several meetings with someone you’ve met online, make sure at least one good friend or family member knows who you are meeting, where you are meeting, and when. Arrange to check in with that person at least once during your date. It’s not unheard of for a woman to ask a friend or family member to “hang out” at the venue, discretely keeping an eye on things from across the room.
- Pay your own way. When you initially go to meet an online companion IRL (in real life), both parties should pay their own way. If the other person wants money or gifts from you, walk away. That person does not love or care about you. No matter how deep your feelings for someone, when that person starts asking for money, alarm bells should be going off. If you’re unsure about a person’s sincerity, ask a trusted friend of family member what they think of the situation before meeting again or going forward.
- Practice online security. Keep a separate email account for online dating and casual hookups-an email at which other personal information (especially financial information) does not arrive. Don’t use your real name as part of this email address, and make sure any “signature” features that give your name, address, phone number, etc. are turned off. Make sure you use difficult to hack passwords (that contain letters, numbers, and symbols). NEVER share your social security number or financial account information online. Also, avoid sending any photos that would upset you if published, waiting at least until you have spent a good deal of “real time” together.
- Remember that sex is not dating. While it’s fine to seek out a casual sexual experience provided you are safe, careful, and not counting on that situation to turn into “love,” remember that it takes months if not a year or more to really know someone-and having sex early makes it that much harder to see the person clearly. If you want to date, then date and date some more before being sexual. If the other person can’t wait (male or female), they likely aren’t your best choice. If you want to have sex, try to avoid believing the intimate illusion that sexual intensity can bring about is anything more than a passing emotion.
- Dress for success. Yes, you want to make sure the other person finds you attractive, but a first date with someone you barely know is not the proper time to send an overly sexual or provocative message. Ladies should skip the low-cut, cleavage revealing top and micro skirt on those first dates. And while a guy’s chest or arm muscles may rival any of the other guys at the gym, it’s best to play that down in the beginning. Remember, if it’s a good match, more will be revealed over time. (If you’re meeting the other person solely to hook-up for sex, feel free to ignore the above rule and dress for the kind of success you seek.)
- Trust your instincts. If the situation seems dicey, if your feelings are just not right, get out. It doesn’t matter how attractive or charming the other person is, if you’re feeling uncomfortable, something is probably wrong. Perhaps the issue is something innocuous, and perhaps it isn’t. Either way, the other person isn’t the partner you’re looking for. Remember that dating is just that; it doesn’t imply an obligation to stay in an uncomfortable situation longer than feels right.
Typically, online dating success is enhanced if you’re searching on the proper site or app. eHarmony.com is terrific for individuals seeking a long-term partner or spouse. Match.com is similar, but skews younger and to more casual relationships. There are Jewish and Christian specific sites (JDate.com, ChristianMingle.com), sites for African Americans (BlackPeopleMeet.com), sites for gays and lesbians (Adam4Adam.com, PinkCupid.com), etc. If you’re looking for a hookup, try Skout or Blendr (for straight men and women), Grindr (for gay men), or PinkCupid (for lesbians). If you’re already in a committed relationship and you’re looking for an extramarital hookup, Ashley Madison is the place. Honestly, whoever you are and whatever you’re looking for, there’s a site/app for you. With a tiny bit of research, you can easily find your best place. There are also a number of online resources for people who run into trouble with online dating. A few of the better ones are www.haltabuse.org and www.romancescams.org.
Though online dating absolutely requires you to be on guard and not be lead around solely by your emotions, using the Internet to meet and date holds the potential for a fun, fulfilling, and even game-changing outcome. The more honest you are about your appearance, what you enjoy, and the kind of relationship you want, the more likely you are to quickly find the person you seek. As long as you pick the right dating site for your interests and needs and follow some basic personal privacy and safety rules, there is no reason you can’t safely and enjoyably find the experience you desire, be that a life-partner, someone for casual dating and romance, or even a simple sexual hook-up.
Weiss LCSW, R. (2012). Protecting Yourself in the Online Dating World. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 3, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/sex/2012/10/protecting-yourself-in-the-online-dating-world/