Everyone has or knows someone who has been on a bad date. Whether it’s due to lack of a spark or discovering that the person doesn’t quite look like their photos, there are many ways in which a first date can go wrong. In many cases, however, dates organized through online dating apps aren’t just awkward, but dangerous.
While online dating provides countless opportunities for many positive experiences, it also opens up doors for deception and danger. The internet is full of harassers, stalkers, fraudsters, and other duplicitous individuals. And all of these can do irreparable harm to your life or reputation through your phone or computer screen. Because it can be difficult to get a real sense of who someone is online, It’s easy to think that they’re honest and trustworthy. After all, it takes mere minutes for someone to create a fake profile complete with convincing photos.
It’s important to be able to identify bad actors and stay safe while navigating the often murky waters of online dating. For this reason, we’ve put together this online dating safety guide. Below we’re going to outline ways to stay safe online, scams you should be aware of, and how to protect yourself from several potential dangers should you find yourself in the middle of controversy.
The Main Risks of Online Dating
The risks and dangers that you should be aware of when dating online can generally be divided into six categories:
- Scam dating and fake websites
- Fake profiles and catfishing
- Harassment, abuse, and stalking
- Revenge porn or image-based abuse
- Unwanted attention on social media
- Data breaches or leaks
Scam Dating and Fake Websites
There are many legit dating apps and platforms online that can help you find hookups or the love of your life. However, there are a disproportionate number of scam operations that exist to only separate you from your hard-earned money.
Fraudulent online dating websites routinely pose as lawful businesses. With grand promises of sex or romance, they try to siphon off your personal data or credit card details. In worst-case scenarios, they will empty your bank account with bogus sign-up fees.
How to Spot a Scam:If you think a site might be a scam but aren’t too sure, be on the lookout for the following signs:
The website uses stock imagesMany fraudulent dating sites don’t have verified users. To make up for this, they use stock photos to make it seem like they have an active user base. More often than not, these photos are extremely high quality, well-composed, and of extraordinarily beautiful people. A good rule of thumb to work by is that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
The website asks for too much personal informationMost apps require some basic personal information such as your name and email address to get started. Scam sites will ask for way more. If a site asks you for financial details, personal address, or social security number, it’s fake.
The website has a ton of bad reviewsBefore you sign up for any sort of dating app, do a bit of research first. You’ll likely find a trail of disillusioned users who were also scammed out of their money. If a website has a ton of bad reviews, it’s probably best to avoid it.
The women are too beautifulScam sites will populate their sites almost exclusively with beautiful women to lure in men who want guaranteed hookups. In normal life, users of popular dating sites come in all shapes and sizes. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the app or website you’re using somehow only has the hottest users in the world.
Fake Profiles and Catfishing
Many charlatans use fake profiles to coerce users into starting relationships with them. After gaining the person’s trust, they will then exhort them for money or blackmail them in some way. This process is known as catfishing, and it happens all over the internet every day.
Catfishing is extremely common on dating apps. Fraudsters who catfish often steal photos and information from real profiles to make themselves seem as believable as possible. After gaining a person’s trust, they will manipulate them, prey on their insecurities, and exploit them for personal gain. There are 95 million fake accounts on Instagram, so you can just imagine how that transitions to dating apps.
How to Spot Fake Profiles:Fake accounts can be extremely sophisticated, so spotting one can be difficult. That being said, these are the telltale signs of a fake profile:
One profile pictureMany fake profiles will only have a single uploaded picture. This isn’t wholly damning in and of itself, as some genuine profiles will also only use one photo. That being said, if you do encounter a single-photo profile, it’s better not to take the risk. Besides, you probably want to be dating someone who puts a little bit more effort into their profile anyway.
The profile is too good to be trueIf she looks like a model, has a wide variety of professional-looking photos, is really into you off the bat, and also happens to be extremely horny, then we have bad news for you - it’s probably a guy in his mom’s basement in Cyprus trying to rip you off. Unless the profile is verified by the app you’re using, it’s a scam.
Pre-programmed answers or bad grammarOften scammers will simply use a pre-programmed script to spam messages to many profiles simultaneously. These replies often won’t make sense or are badly written. If you see either of these signs, the person you’re speaking to is either a bot or a foreign actor.
They deflect or ignore suggestions to meet in personScammers will often avoid any suggestions to meet up in person or take your relationship to the next level. Their motivations are purely to manipulate you or scam you out of your finances. Because of this, they won’t take the risk of setting up any in-person meetings.
They are immediately interested in hooking upIf she’s offering to climb into bed within the first five message exchanges, don’t be fooled. Most normal people won’t suggest hooking up immediately.
Online Stalking and HarassmentOnline harassment is any form of unwanted behavior that results in the victim feeling humiliated, distressed, or attacked. Sadly, online stalking and harassment are commonplace throughout the internet. Dating apps provide harassers with the ideal set of tools for carrying out attacks. As such, harassment is rife in the online dating scene. According to the Pew Research Center, roughly four-in-ten Americans have experienced online harassment of some form or another.
Online harassment and abuse can take many forms:
- Unwanted sexual advances
- Nonconsensual sexual images
- Persistent messaging on social media both publicly and privately
- Threats, bullying, and reputational slander
How to Protect Yourself from Online Stalking and HarassmentBecause online harassment is so prolific, it’s important to take steps to safeguard yourself and your personal information. These steps should be at the forefront of your mind when using dating apps and speaking to strangers online.Here are a few things you can do to protect yourself from online harassment:
- Never reveal personal information such as your address or phone number to people you have just met online.
- Be wary of anyone who pushes you for personal information.
- Be very conscious of what you post on social media.
- Restrict your social media accounts so that only friends and family can view your content, not internet strangers.
- Be wary about linking your social media accounts to your dating profiles.
- Make sure you use some sort of anti-spyware or antivirus when using dating sites or apps.
- Password protects all vulnerable accounts and updates your passwords regularly.
- Never open unknown attachments from people you don’t know.
- Never send sexual content to people you don’t trust; it can easily be used as blackmail.
- Don’t use your personal email when setting up dating app accounts. Use a dedicated email that is not attached to any other digital facets of your life.
What To Do if You Are Harassed Online:
- Ignore them if you can. People who harass are bullies, and they get their satisfaction from getting a reaction. By ignoring them you’re denying them that reaction and that can be enough to leave you alone.
- If their harassment is particularly egregious, keep a record of their communications. Take screenshots or save messages and keep them should you need to prove that you were being harassed.
- Change the passwords of all your accounts if you think that someone may have access to them.
- Implement as many additional security measures for your online accounts as you can - for example, two-factor authentication - to prevent anyone from accessing your data or content.
- If you believe that someone has hacked your device, stop using it immediately. Take it to a professional to get it checked for bugs and other malware.
- Block the harasser on all sites, apps, and other forms of communication including Whatsapp and social media.
- If the platform you’re using has support report the harasser to them. The same goes for any apps or social media that they try to contact you through. If it persists, report them to your local police.
Revenge Porn and Other Forms of Image-based AbuseYou will have probably heard the term “revenge porn” in recent years. Sexting and sharing explicit content has become more normalized between partners and in dating circles. This has led to many jaded exes or internet creeps posting that content online. This content might show up on a porn site or social media platform without the consent of the victim. This practice is known as revenge porn, and it’s becoming increasingly widespread.
Revenge porn can be divided into two categories:
- Intimate image abuse. This usually occurs once a relationship ends. One partner will share or threaten to share intimate content as a punishment or means of control of the other.
- Sextortion. The process of using explicit content to financially blackmail the victim. This is used orchestrated by cybercriminals.
How to Stay Safe From Revenge Porn and Other Forms of Image-based AbuseThe easiest way to stay safe from revenge porn is to not send any explicit photos of yourself to anyone. However, sexting with someone you trust is a fun and intimate activity. The burden shouldn’t be on you to not express yourself to your sexual partners. You should, however, take steps to prevent that content from getting into the wrong hands. You can also craft your content in such a way that it can’t be used against you. Try the following:
- When taking photos or videos, never show your face or any other identifying features such as tattoos
- Use apps or software that allow your photos to self-destruct after they send
- Password protect your most explicit photos and videos, and never share the password with anyone
- Only send explicit content to long-term partners or people that you absolutely trust. Once they’ve had their fun, ask them to delete the content and show you proof that it’s truly gone
What to do if you’re a victim of revenge porn
If someone has uploaded your sexual explicit content, here is a list of things you can do:
- Don’t blame yourself. Many people send and receive explicit content. You’re not at fault for doing it; the person who is extorting you is.
- Break off communication with the person trying to blackmail or extort you immediately.
- Set all of your social media accounts to private and ignore unwanted invitations.
- Collect all evidence of the offender trying to blackmail or extort you. If you can, record phone calls and conversations otherwise take screenshots of text messages.
- If you’re traumatized by the events, find a support group>. Dedicated websites like the Revenge Porn Helpline can provide some excellent advice on what to do in your situation.
- Check the laws in your country. You might be able to prosecute the offender and get your content taken down and deleted.
- Seek legal advice.
- If you see that your content has been shared with a website or social media platform, contact their support and request to get the content taken offline. Otherwise, follow the steps set out by Cyber Civil Rights’ online removal guide.
Unwanted and Negative Attention on Social MediaAs our lives become increasingly digital, the boundaries between social media, dating apps, and even professional websites have blurred. Many people will try and solicit sex, send unwanted advances or send inappropriate messages. This could take place on platforms as varied as Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Twitch, and even LinkedIn.
While it’s difficult to prevent random people from reaching out, you can minimize the frustration with the following steps:
- Don’t accept invitations from people you don’t know.
- Change your privacy settings to make it harder for people you don’t know to contact you.
- Block and report anyone who sends you an unsolicited and inappropriate message.
Staying Safe When Meeting In PersonEventually, you might decide to meet up with someone that you have a good rapport on a dating app. However, as I’m sure many people can attest to, what happens online doesn’t always translate perfectly into real life. The person you’re speaking to Tinder might be completely different from the one in their profile. In that case, you don’t want to be in a vulnerable position with a person that you don't know.
Here are a few steps you can take to stay safe when meeting someone for the first time:
- Meet in a public place. Ideally, this should be with lots of people on the off chance things go terribly awry.
- Tell your friends exactly where you’re going. You can also share your live location with them and keep them updated should plans change on the fly.
- Don’t leave your drink unattended. It only takes a second for someone to slip something unwanted into your gin and tonic.
- Limit your alcohol consumption. Drunk people made poor judgments. Try and stick to a few drinks to keep your wits sharp.
- If it feels wrong, just leave. Flight is by far the best way to avoid a potentially dangerous situation. You can always find another date.
- If you’re feeling unsafe, signal or speak to a member of staff. Restaurants, bars, and other establishments are trained to help their patrons in this type of scenario. They should be able to assist you should you feel unsafe.
Data leaks and breaches
Dating sites and social apps are major targets for hackers and other cybercriminals. They offer many opportunities to steal sensitive and valuable data from users. Once they have this data they can either sell it or leverage it to blackmail victims.
these types of data attacks are becoming more widespread than ever. One of the biggest data breaches, for example, occurred in 2015. A group of hackers called the “Impact Team” leaked the records of 32 million users from affair-platform Ashley Madison.
It’s hard to control how a company stores or uses your data (outside of giving or denying your consent). However, you can take steps to reduce the harm to your finances and reputation that a data leak can cause:
- Ensure that you use a strong, unique password and two-factor authentication on any dating apps or platforms you use.
- Don’t open any links from people you don’t know.
- If you can, only access the dating app you use via a VPN.
- Never share your full name, address, or place of work in your dating profile. Kaspersky researchers found that with just a person’s name, education, and job title, they were able to match a dating profile to a LinkedIn account 60% of the time.
- Don’t link your dating app accounts to your social media accounts.
- Always disable any location-sharing features in your accounts on dating apps.
Online Dating and COVID-19
Online dating took on a whole new dimension and set of complications with the arrival of COVID-19. What does the arrival of a deadly pathogen mean for dating apps, dates, and hookups in general? Well, for starters, a lot more users.
In March 2020, Tinder hit a record 3 billion swipes in a single day. OkCupid saw a 700% increase in dates between March and May 2020. Clearly, people in isolation are hungrier than ever for contact and connection. Naturally, this has led to more people using apps, but also more people dating virtually.
Because in-person meetings were banned and could be fatal, many apps created or unlocked features to help facilitate virtual dating. Instead of in-person meet-ups, they also encouraged users to connect via video call, text, or phone calls.
Here are a few things you can do to stay safe:
- Ask for the vaccination status. If they’re not vaccinated, ask your date to get a negative test before you meet up.
- Meet up in an open-air or well-ventilated location. Parks, outdoor cinemas, and bike rides are all fantastic ideas for a first date.
- Be vigilant about the case numbers in your area. If cases are surging, maybe think about waiting until things calm down a bit before meeting up.
- Check-in after your date. Get in contact a few days after your date to make sure that both of you are still healthy.