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one simply does not meet online strangers in private areas

Remember 10 years ago when the phrase “online dating” was this dirty term that carried with it negative connotations of social awkwardness and desperation? Now that phrase is ubiquitous amongst 20-somethings, and in our culture that’s flying at an ever-increasing pace, “online dating” is becoming the most efficient means for many people to meet others. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed today to meet a late 20’s single individual who hasn’t at least tried an online dating service.

However, one stigma that’s still holding tightly onto the coat tails of the online dating scene is that of “danger.”

By its very nature the online world is and will always be masked to some degree. As such, some people are more comfortable exaggerating, while others have no problem with downright lying. Behind the veil of the computer monitor, users gather this courage and commit acts (benign and malignant alike) that they’d never consider committing in person.

You see this phenomenon most prevalent in the world of online gaming. There you’ll witness pre-teen “keyboard warriors” who spew out 4-letter words in the most creative of combinations that even Mr. Tarantino himself would be inspired for his next script if he only spent a few minutes in the lobby of the latest Call of Duty or League of Legends game.

While cursing and name-calling is hardly a threat that online daters need to be worried about, that notion of people feeling safe to act in a way in which they never would in real life is something to worry about.

In online dating lobbies, it’s not uncommon to meet strangers who represent themselves in ways that are not completely accurate. It’s not uncommon for complete strangers to see your profile and send you unsolicited messages. It’s not uncommon for complete strangers to suggest meeting up in the middle of the night.

It’s only by playing safe that we can mitigate that ever present stigma of “danger” within the online dating community. And in order to do so, there are certain precautions that every single participant (both females and males) should be taking each time they log in to their account and consider meeting up with a new date.

Do Not Post Contact Information

Let me ask you a question: would you wear a shirt to the local dive that had your phone number in bold font across your chest? I think not, so why do so many feel comfortable doing the virtual equivalent by blasting their phone number, email, and, God forbid, their address on their public dating profile?

Don’t post your contact information online. Just don’t do it.

When you talk to a potential date and would like to share a little bit more about yourself, pass whatever contact details you feel comfortable with in a private conversation. Most dating websites have private messaging systems and internal email services. Use those tools to share your contact information, not your public profile.

Watch for Red Flags

Red flags are huge warning signs that you should be on constant lookout for when using an online dating service. They’re the first indicator that something is amiss. Here are a few situations that are common and something to always watch for.

  • When online daters say they’re from out of country, but will be in your area for a short period of time, ignore them. This is the start to an equivalent scam of the Nigerian prince who’s been emailing you weekly for the past decade.

  • On a related note, anybody who says they need something in order to provide you with something else is a bad apple. For instance, a guy who says he needs your address so he can send you flowers, or a woman who says she needs money right now for this or that and then will meet up with you next week. These are both people who you should immediately remove from your list of contacts and ignore them indefinitely.

  • Other red flags include those who try to exploit religious or spiritual vulnerabilities. When you see the inbox message, “God told me about you,” or, “It’s our destiny to be together,” just run, and run fast.

  • Another warning sign is when somebody sends you a message that contains a URL link to another website. These often go to insidious websites or files that can put you and your computer at risk. It’s best to avoid clicking on any link from others unless you fully trust those individuals.

There are many blatant red flags that are prolific amongst all online dating platforms. These are a few to watch for, but do not mistake this summarized list as “complete.” Rather, understand that red flags are ever-evolving and everything you see online should be considered with some degree of safe scrutiny. Keep your wits about you when participating in these communities.

Keep an Eye Out for Not-So-Blatant Red Flags

While many signs are obvious, there are countless others that should cause you to lift an eyebrow.

Here are a few less-common red flags to watch for:

  • Somebody who makes a ton of grammatical and spelling errors. While this isn’t always a telltale sign of a potential threat, it can be indicative of a scammer (especially foreign) trying to find potential targets.

  • If somebody disappears then reappears with a different name (even if only slightly different). You have to question the reasoning for their first disappearance. Maybe they were reported by another user, or maybe they behaved in a way in which they should not have and are trying to start anew. Ignore them and all future iterations of “them” that come around.

  • When another user asks you to chat through another website or service. Taking communication away from the official dating platform removes a user from the rules and security that a dating platform provides. It also subjects a victim to the whims and potentially unwanted or inappropriate behavior of the other individual. Stay on the dating platform you met through, as official dating services have administrators who are willing to help if another user begins to act in a suspicious manner.

  • A user who has a pictures that look unrealistically good.

That last point needs some further explanation. It’s not saying beautiful people don’t exist on dating websites. On the contrary, but when users have seemingly professionally shot photos that appear to be flawless and/or digitally touched up, it warrants further investigation. The last thing you want to do is chat with somebody who is lying about who they really are, and lying about appearance is one of the most blatant and obtrusive lies that an online dater can do.

If you suspect a user is lying about their appearance, here’s a quick tip: run their photo through Google’s image search. Right-click on their photo and save it to your computer. Then go to Google’s image search and drag-and-drop that photo into the search bar. If that photo is hosted elsewhere (i.e. a stock photo website), then there’s a good chance this search will find it.

Establish YOUR goals

Perhaps the easiest way to begin a “safe” journey in the online dating world is to prepare beforehand by establishing exactly what you’re looking for. Set clear and concise boundaries in relation to your own goals with online dating.

Are you looking for a serious relationship? Don’t settle for casual meetings. Do you want to take things slowly? Make that clear in the initial online meetings, prior to ever meeting your date in person.

And when you do meet your date, stick to those goals.

For instance, if you’re standing firm on your pursuit for a serious but slow relationship, make sure you have your own ride to and from your in-person meetings. Don’t leave anything to risk or chance.

Meet in a safe, public location

Regardless of what your goals and intentions are, ALWAYS meet in a safe and public location when advancing an online relationship to an in-person one.

Restaurants, popular and well-populated parks, museums, and coffee shops are all acceptable choices for that first meeting.

But don’t limit yourself to public venues only on the first meeting. Keep it public for the second, third, and fourth dates. Keep it public for however long you feel comfortable with. If there’s pushback after the first or second date, then chalk that behavior up as a red flag.

Trust your gut

Finally, remember: no single article will ever tell you everything you need to know about online safety in every situation. This particular one doesn’t even scratch the surface.

Rather, this guide is meant to give you examples and general rules of thumb to base your safety strategy on. At the end of the day, you have to look at your particular situation and gauge the right move. Trust your gut, and keep your web wits sharp. If something seems weird, remove yourself from it. If something makes you feel uncomfortable, end your contact with it. If the whole idea of an in-person meeting with a stranger from online concerns you, then in addition to the previous tips presented here, bring a friend!

There are never “too many” safety precautions you can take when dealing with the anonymous world of the internet, regardless of what some may try to tell you.

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