How to Do Online Dating…Safely

by Kristin T.

February 11, 2024

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For better or for worse, the days of the happenstance meet-cute at a bar or a friend’s house party are pretty much gone. The place to meet a potential romantic partner has shifted – almost completely – to the internet. Depending on your line of work & what you do in your free time, it may feel (or actually be) almost impossible to meet someone organically. So, what’s a gal or guy who’s basically forced to use a dating app or three just to have a chance of meeting someone to do? Suck it up, hit ‘download’, and prepare to put yourself out there…safely.

Ok, maybe you didn’t hop on the dating app train in time for Dating Sunday last month, but with Valentine’s Day breathing down our necks, you’ve realized you don’t want to spend another one single. Time to take things online.

Online dating platforms and apps are a bit of a Catch-22. They have massively increased in popularity over the years, and have insidiously become one of the only ways to meet other seeking singles. And while most dating sites have come a long way in terms of protecting their users, you’re still potentially compromising a lot of your privacy & personal security to use them. While anything involving meeting literal strangers can be risky, there are some things you can be proactive about to reduce your risks.

Choosing your Platform:

  1. Choose an app made for how you want to date. There are many possibilities out there, most of which are better for certain things. Some sites are better for casual dating or one night stands while some are made for those looking for lasting love. Some are better for monogamous daters while a few are aimed at polyamorous and CNM folks. Many are even geared towards specific age groups, sexualities, religions, or lifestyles. Read some reviews and see what sounds like the best fit for you.
  2. Pick a dating platform that you sign up for using an email address AND phone number. Other users can’t see your phone number until decide to share it with them, and it actually makes things safer. There are a number of reasons for this, including:
    • The need for two-factor authentication makes it more difficult to hack your account, and a lot harder for bot-created false accounts to be made.
    • It’s easier for the app to put the ban hammer down on users reported for inappropriate behavior. Banned & blocked users won’t just be able to make a new account and start over. It’s substantially more challenging to obtain a new, verifiable phone number to make a new account with than just setting up a new email address.
  3. Whenever possible, create a brand new account with credentials you choose just for that site rather than logging in through Google, Apple, Facebook, or any other accounts you use that it may offer. You may even want to set up a free email account to use just for dating apps, especially if you’re planning on using more than one. This makes it easier to see everything related to dating app activity in one place, and should prevent some spam, until those listbots inevitably find your new email address, too.
  4. Avoid dating platforms tied to your existing social media accounts. Unless it’s one of the only options in your area, Facebook Dating and other dating apps directly linked to your existing social media profiles can be sus. They can potentially make your personal profile more accessible, opening you up to more people with more information they can use as ammo if they have malicious intent.

Building your Profile:

As exciting as it can be to get right to building that perfect profile that will attract your soulmate, there are some key safety considerations to keep in mind.

  • Use the algorithms to your advantage. Most dating sites rely on algorithms to show you potential matches. These algorithms pull from the data you enter about your location, age, interests, gender identity & sexuality, religion, desires in a partner, and more. Be as honest as possible when filling out your profile or taking “quizzes” on the apps that offer those so you don’t get matched with anyone who would be wildly incompatible with you, or even potentially threatening.
  • List your deal breakers. While it would be nice to be able to talk about some things as you get to know each other, you can save yourself a lot of time by being forward about anything that will result in a no-interest scenario in your profile details. This way, anyone who doesn’t meet your criteria can keep on scrolling. Why am I listing this as a safety tip? Well, it turns out some people get really upset if you ‘waste their time’ by not disclosing some of these right off the bat. For example…
    • User submitted true story time: “While using a dating app, I had been messaging with a guy for weeks, thought things were going pretty well; we were almost at the point where we were ready to set up an IRL date. Well, he sent over some (appropriate) pictures, in one of which he had a cigarette in his hand. I politely asked him if he was still a smoker, and he said “yes, why?”. I politely explained to him that due to allergies, asthma, and just personal preference, I was not interested in dating a smoker. He went from zero to rage beast in 3 seconds flat. I turned off my interest but didn’t block him…yet. That part (and the report that got him banned from the platform) came when he messaged me at midnight and called me a horrible person for wasting his time and then not being interested just because he smoked, and he hoped I was raped and murdered. I wish I was kidding, but I couldn’t make this shit up, honestly. We never met; thank God I dodged that bullet! I worried for weeks, trying to remember if I had shared any important details that could allow him to locate me. So, based on this experience, if I were building a profile in the future, I would personally list that no smokers need apply.
  • Don’t get too personal. Be as vague as possible while still providing relevant details. Say your general job title, not where you work. If you have kids, say you have kids, but don’t say their ages or how many. Say you like to play trivia, not that you play pub trivia with your friends at O’Malley’s every Thursday evening at 7.
  • Be mindful about your pictures: You obviously want to use recent, flattering pictures in which you look natural, but what should you avoid? Ideally, only use pictures that include just you – no friends, no kids, and definitely no exes. Make sure you’re not holding or wearing anything that could identify anything about your personal life, like an embroidered work shirt from your company. Ensure there’s no license plate numbers, addresses, or obvious landmarks in the background of your home or places you frequent, and choose pictures from a variety of locations. Definitely don’t use those cutesy Snapchat stamps that show the date, time, and location the photo was taken. Otherwise, someone with ill intent could determine that you play trivia at O’Malley’s every Thursday evening at 7.

Messaging & Communicating:

  1. Keep chats within the dating platform. Message exclusively within the dating app/site for as long as you can rather than share your phone number for texting. Communicating via your phone number opens up more possibilities for fraud, abuse, and just general terrible behavior, which the dating app may not be able to do anything about because it’s outside of the bounds of their safety protocols.
  2. Vet messages for bots and scammers. Unfortunately, even dating apps aren’t free from the dreaded Nigerian princes and ‘pay your back taxes with Amazon gift cards or the IRS is going to arrest you’ crowd. They may be a little sneakier about it, though. Keep an eye out for users who always respond to similar questions the exact same way, or whose responses don’t necessarily make sense for the context. These can be indications that your Don Juan is actually AI. Online dating scams or ‘romance scams’ are their own category of internet fraud, where the person builds trust with you over time, then sets the hook. Never exchange money or any potentially compromising information when chatting with a potential match.
  3. Try and arrange at least one video call with the person before you meet in real life. This way, you can see what they really look like now so you can find them when you meet. It’s important to see their face and make sure you get good vibes from their facial expressions and voice when they speak. It’s also a good way to prevent catfishing or the dreaded “are your profile pics from 10 years ago??” moment when you do meet up. You can use Whatsapp for video calling so you still don’t have to share your phone number if you’re not ready to.
  4. Don’t be afraid to report a person for inappropriate behavior. Dating apps rely on users to report anyone that gets out of line. If they do it with you, they’re likely going to do it with someone else, and they just shouldn’t be on a site like that. If shit starts to get shady, screenshot any offending communications so you can submit them with your report. Then go ahead and file the report. Most dating platforms will ask to contact you for more details, and keep you updated on the status of your report, which is often them being removed from the site. If they’re not removed, at least do everything you can to block them.

Meeting in Person:

Ok, so things have been going really well in the chatting department and you’re ready to see how things go IRL. This can potentially be one of the most hazardous minefields of online dating, but there are some things you can do to protect yourself.

  • Meet somewhere: For the first few dates, it’s always best to meet at a public place like a restaurant or a museum rather than pick one another up at their home. This way, there are other people around at all times, you don’t have to disclose where you live, and you both have your own mode of transportation to get out if things go south. Whoever chooses the venue, make sure it’s at least somewhere you’re familiar with, and refuse if they suggest anywhere you’re not comfortable with. Early practice with compromise can be healthy! Daytime dates like weekend brunch or coffee can be an excellent choice for a first date, especially if you’re concerned about being out after dark with someone new.
  • Tell someone: Before going out with any new date, tell a family member or close friend who you’re meeting, including as many personal details as you know about them such as full name and phone number/dating app user name, where you’re meeting them, and about how long you expect to be gone. Text them occasional check-ins if possible, and let them know once you’ve made it home safely. You’ll hopefully at least want to spill how great (or hilariously terrible) it went!
  • Don’t get inebriated: While it’s okay to have a drink or two, getting schnockered on a first date with a stranger off the internet isn’t a good idea. Remember that alcohol lowers inhibitions. You might wind up saying things you’d regret later, or be willing to do things you wouldn’t otherwise do. It also makes it so you can’t drive yourself home if you need to. If you do accidentally drink too much and find yourself in a situation where you feel unsafe, many bars have an “angel shot” protocol where they will help you get a cab or Uber and get out of a date and home safely if needed.
  • Have an out: Keep a plan in the back of your mind for what you will do if you feel uncomfortable and need to end a date early. A ‘family emergency’ is always a safe bet. This is where your knowledgeable outside caller comes in. Your dog ran away? Your mom fell off a ladder and needs to go to urgent care? Roommate locked herself out and needs to be let in? Sure, your date may “know what’s really happening”, but that’s okay because ideally, you haven’t disclosed much personally identifying information yet at this point, so they won’t be able to find you/message you if they do something inappropriate and you need to report or block them. While it would be nice if we could just be honest about this instead of making up excuses, that’s not always the case. Be gracious, offer to pay for your portion of the check, and be on your way.

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