The Internet has no shortage of online dating websites, where people create profiles about themselves in order to stand out and attract potential romantic companions. They are advantageous in some ways, in that they allow people to expose themselves to hundreds of potential matches at once (with the hopes that one of them will be the right fit), and/or to narrow down what they really want in a companion so that whoever they're matched with has a high chance of clicking with them.
However, online dating websites also present opportunities for criminals to easily manipulate people. By posing as someone looking for love, a cyber-criminal may be able to trick their matches into giving up personal information, or even meeting with them in a secluded place. From there, a criminal may be able to steal a person's identity or money, physically or emotionally abuse them, or worse.
Many dating websites know that these sorts of things happen, and have taken measures to weed out potentially dangerous people. However, there are also precautions that you can take to protect yourself from being targeted by these kinds of people, or at least identify and avoid them before they can take advantage of you. The following are five important guidelines to remember for online dating.
Often, dating websites will require you to provide certain credentials when you sign up for an account. You will usually be asked for your email address, gender, birthday, and perhaps also your real name. This is information that people on a dating website will generally want to know about you during the matchmaking process. It also helps verify that you're actually interested in using the website properly, and are not looking to cause trouble.
However, you will also often be invited to enter other information, such as your body type or dimensions, whether or not you drink or smoke, your faith or religion, your political views, and so on. Some of this information may help you get more accurate matches, but on the other hand, you may not feel comfortable revealing it. So if it isn't mandatory, then you can leave it blank. It also isn't a bad idea to make sure that your profile picture -- if you are required to include one -- doesn't include any recognizable features or information concerning where you live, nor do any other pictures that you upload (if this is an option).
Just because someone seems right for you doesn't mean that they are who they say they are. Even if some dating websites say they do background checks on a person, it's sometimes not a guarantee of security, so do a "background check" of your own. Look at the person's profile and see what they have to say about themselves. You may be able to tell whether or not things add up about them right away. If you're still not sure, see if you can privately message some other people on the website, and ask about your match and their reputation. It might also not be a bad idea to type your match's name, user name, or other profile information into a search engine and see what comes up. If you see too much of the same information too many times, it might be a hint that the person isn't genuine.
Many dating websites have secure internal messaging or chat systems that allow you to talk with other people in private. It is advantageous to use these systems if you can, as it means you don't have to use regular email and possibly reveal your email address to someone whom you don't fully trust. There are even some websites that have secure phone lines that you can use to make phone calls to matches without either of you revealing your personal phone numbers. These may require an upgraded paid account to access, but this can be worth it if you value your privacy.
If you don't feel like shelling out money for anonymous phone connections, a possible alternative is to use an Internet phone -- or VoIP – service such as Skype. Many of these services only identify you by a user name, so you can call someone without revealing any other information about yourself. Be careful, though, as some will still allow others to view your email address, and perhaps other information you have posted on your profile.
The most important thing to remember in dating -- whether in real life or in cyberspace -- is to maintain control over the situation at a pace with which you're comfortable. Through communicating with your match, you may be able to notice some signs that they want to move too fast, or are otherwise just not right. For example, they may be overly demanding, and always want things to be done a certain way. Or, they may get offended or angry too easily, perhaps as an attempt to dodge certain questions that you ask them. They may take out their frustration by badmouthing other people, or even you. Or, they may bring up issues of sex or money unusually early in the dating process. These are all warning signs that your match may be trouble.
If something that your match is doing or saying makes you feel uncomfortable, you have every right to tell them so. If they are a genuine person, they will be responsive to your needs, and stop the unwanted behaviour. If they do not, however, and you notice a pattern of the same alarming behaviour over and over, then you also have the right to walk away and stop communicating with that person. You don't even need to explain why you are doing so; again, if the person was sincere, they would understand that you don't want to be pressured into doing something that you're not comfortable with.
If something clicks between you and your match, you may want to meet for a date in the real world. This is fine, but remember that you should still take precautions and not let your guard down. For starters, don't allow your match to persuade you into going somewhere isolated, such as hiking into the woods, or meeting at either of your houses (which includes picking each other up). Instead, suggest a date in a crowded, urban area, such as at a mall or restaurant, where there will be people who notice if something suspicious happens. Also, don't agree to meet at a place where you hang out all the time. If things don't work out, you don't want to make it easy for your match to find you again and possibly stalk you.
Another important tip is to let someone you trust know what you're doing and where you're going, and share what you know about your match with them. If possible, get that person to come with you on the date as a chaperone, and ask them to help you watch your match for any suspicious behaviour. If your confidant can't come with you on the date, make sure that you have a way to contact them during the date, such as a mobile phone (and make sure it's fully charged before you leave), in case anything happens. When the date is over, don't leave together with your match (e.g. don't offer them a ride home or accept their offer to drive you home), and don't let them see you get into your car (as they may use your car's license plates or other defining characteristics to tail you). Also, check in with your confidant and let them know how things went.
A final thing to remember is that you should follow these precautions if you go on more dates in the future with the same person. Some criminals will hope that you will be familiar enough with them to trust them after only one or two dates, and then strike when you let your guard down as a result. Until you're absolutely sure that you can trust one of your matches, don't do anything that could reveal any sort of personal information about yourself to them, and never go anywhere alone with them.
To wrap things up for this lesson, we'd like to remind you that we're not trying to scare you away from online dating completely. We're simply letting you know that, while there are certain people on online dating websites who are dangerous, there are also signs you can look for and actions that you can take in order to identify and avoid them. Most people who follow tips like these by using their instincts and common sense rarely have any problems at all when dating online. In fact, online dating can be a very fun experience, and possibly one that helps you find that special someone.
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