Staying safe on online dating sites
When it comes to online safety and dating sites, we like to think we know what we’re talking about. Stitch is the only companionship site in the world that insists on identity verification for its members, and we do a lot of things behind the scenes to ensure that Stitch is free of scammers and fraudsters that most dating sites simply don’t do. Ask any of our members and they’ll tell you this extra focus on safety creates an environment that’s really not like anything they’ve found anywhere else.
But it also means we get some extraordinary insights into the sorts of things that scammers, fakes and fraudsters will try to do to get money (or worse) from their intended victims. And given many of these things apply not just to dating sites, but to all sorts of online social networks, we thought we’d pull together some practical tips that everyone should think about when communicating with anyone they don’t know online — and particularly on online dating sites.
The danger is real
Before jumping in to the guidance, however, it’s really important to stress that we’re not simply making this stuff up — the danger from scammers online is very real.
Not only does one report after another highlight how many people are being duped by scammers every year, but we’ve had many members of Stitch tell us their stories about how they’ve lost money themselves.
My favourite story is that of Maria*, one of our members lost close to $10,000 to a scammer from Ghana. She met me for coffee not long after joining Stitch and showed me a 90-page dossier she had prepared for me. She wanted me to truly understand how the scammers worked.
You see, after being stung, she was so upset that she went back to night school and trained as a private investigator. Her speciality? You guessed it: cyber-security, with a focus on fighting scammers.
This was Maria’s way of getting back at those who had hurt her. She shared dozens of stories of men and women who had lost far more than she had to sophisticated online scams. Some victims had ended up in jail, after being unwittingly duped into committing crimes themselves.
Most amazing were the images of scammers boasting about their exploits online, flashing photos of the cash they had stolen and sharing tips with fellow scammers on online forums and Facebook groups. Even if only one person in a thousand falls for their scams, it’s still worth their time.
Over 50? You need to be extra careful
Unfortunately, if you are a senior, or even just over 50, then you need to be even more careful. Statistics show that seniors are not only more likely to have fallen for an online scam, they are more likely to be targeted, and when they lose money, they lose more than their younger peers.
The good news
If everything above makes you want to avoid going online altogether, then it shouldn’t. The good news is that it’s not hard to stay safe if you follow a few simple common-sense guidelines. In many cases it’s simply enough to remember to behave the same way online as you would in the real world.
You’d think twice before getting into a complete stranger’s car, wouldn’t you?
I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t give them your bank details either.
If you wouldn’t do either of those things in the real world, then you’re going to find it easy to stay safe online, just as long as you understand how “common sense” rules from the real world translate to the world of online dating.
The biggest risks
One last word before I launch into our guidance: it’s worth highlighting that there are, broadly speaking, two different types of risks you face when it comes to online dating:
- Risks you face from a predator online, including being defrauded of your savings, identity theft, etc
- Risks you face from a predator in person, for example being sexually assaulted by someone who picks you up for a date
While both types of risks are a concern, when it comes to members of Stitch (i.e. people over 50), the greatest risk BY FAR is the online threat. And it’s not even close: by our estimates, a senior’s chances of experiencing abuse in the real world are less than 1/1000th of their chances of being targeted for a scam online.
That may sound surprising, but the reasons are quite straightforward:
- The rewards are high
Scammers have been able to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars from a single victim. If you’re a poor kid in a country with few viable employment opportunities, that’s a powerful incentive to give scamming a try.
- The risks are low (for the criminals)
Unfortunately arrests of online scammers are few and far between, as the law doesn’t offer much protection in many of the countries they operate in. Online scammers put themselves at very little risk. Someone who meets you in person faces a much greater risk of getting caught.
- It’s easy to cast a wide net
In-person crime doesn’t scale very well, as the criminal can only try to attack one victim at a time. Online crime, however, lets scammers target thousands of victims from the safety of their own homes. That’s really important when it comes to fraud, as a scammer may need to try thousands of potential victims before someone takes the bait.
- It’s easy to impersonate someone else online
The key to most online dating scams is the ability of the scammer to impersonate someone else. Often the scam involves a story about travelling aboard, getting into some kind of trouble, and asking the victim to wire them money. For the most part this is really only feasible online … it’s extremely difficult for a 19-year-old scammer in Ghana to impersonate a 65-year-old account executive in Chicago in person!
- Older users are far less likely to experience physical assault
This is one area where it’s good to be a little older: sexual violence is far less likely to happen to older victims. In fact, you are 23x less likely to experience sexual assault if you are over 65 than if you are under 34.
We’re not saying you don’t need to exercise caution when meeting a stranger for a date — you absolutely should — but if you are over 50, statistically speaking the greatest risk you face in the online dating world comes when you are dealing with someone online.
With this in mind, we’ve focused our guidance on how to keep yourself safe online when using online dating sites, and most of the tips below relate to online safety.
OK, without further ado, here are our top 15 tips for staying safe on online dating sites:
1. Look them up (and embrace your inner stalker)
You need to remind yourself that you know absolutely nothing about the person you’ve just met, apart from what they’ve said on their profile. Fortunately there are a number of things you can do to get more information about them, including:
- Find them on Facebook (but don’t become friends — see below!). Gather as much information you can to reassure yourself that they are who they say they are. Do you have mutual friends? If so, ask your friends about them. How many friends do they have? How authentic are their posts? Are their posts consistent with who they say they are and where they live?
- Find them on LinkedIn and do the same
- Do a reverse image search on their profile pictures. If you use Chrome as your browser, this is absurdly easy to do: just right-click on the image and choose “Search Google for Image”. If not, just open images.google.com in your browser, click the photo icon and paste in the image you want to search. Many scammers use images stolen from public profiles, and will show up on multiple sites under different names. If they do, stay away!
- Google them! You can often find people simply based on a location, a first name, and some of the basic information they provide on their profile
- Do it the old-fashioned way: just ask them for some information that you could use to verify that they are who they say they are. If they say they work at your local library, for example, give the library a call and ask to speak to them … it can be that simple!
2. Look out for the warning signals
No matter how long you’ve known someone online, you should be on the lookout for any of the following warning signals:
- Someone who says they live locally, but are currently travelling abroad for work or vacation
- Asking for money or donations
- Any form of solicitation or spam
- Asking your address to send you flowers or gifts
- Asking you for personally identifying information
- Hard luck stories (e.g. sudden and unexpected medical expenses for their kids)
- Similarly, stories that are too good to be true … such as a great business opportunity — if only they had some money
- Asking you to get off the dating site and communicate via a different chat system
- Early and enthusastic declarations of love — let’s be realistic, if you met someone in the real world and started saying they loved you after a couple of conversations you’d be suspicious, wouldn’t you?
- Anything that feels a little off kilter — such as getting basic information about your area wrong, as though they were learning about it from the Internet, poor spelling and grammar that isn’t consistent with who they claim to be, using an international phone number, etc
- Not being willing to meet in person
3. Don’t give out your personal information, not even your email address
This one is a no-brainer, but is easy to get wrong. Do you know how many cases of identity theft start with an email address? If you don’t use strong passwords a thief will often be able to hack into your email once they know a few basic bits of information about you, by using the password recovery process that most email systems provide. Once they have your email address, the next step is to use it to get the login to more important information, such as your bank account.
The same goes for address information, social security numbers, postal addresses, etc. Never give out any personal information to someone you have only met online.
4. Verify they match their profile
Remember the example I gave earlier about the scammer from Ghana impersonating the executive in Chicago? The sooner you are able to check that the person at the other end of the internet connection simply looks like their profile, the quicker you will have eliminated 95% of the scammers out there.
The simplest way to do this is to meet in person, of course, and we’ve got some advice about doing this further down on the list below.
But you don’t even need to wait to do this: the Internet now provides a number of tools for having a video call with someone which don’t require you to hand out your Skype ID or email address.
Our favorite is Appear (appear.in), which lets you set up an instant, private video chat with someone for free, without giving out any personal information. It’s super-simple and doesn’t require any software to install.
Of course, if you can get them to chat to you via Appear and they do look like their profile then it’s no guarantee they are trustworthy, but it definitely does mean you’ve reduced your risk significantly.
5. Meet in person
Even better than a video chat is to meet in person, of course. If you do, just remember that the first meeting isn’t really a “date” for either of you; it’s much more of a verification session about whether you are comfortable enough to go on that first date.
With that in mind, we’d recommend starting with a daytime coffee meeting with a reasonably strict time limit — that way it’s not a surprise when you decide it’s time to leave. Meeting in a neutral public place that’s not close to your home is always advisable, and if you’re able to do it at a group event then even better … I know we did say the main risk is online but it’s still worth being careful!
Given 99.9% of scammers in the world live in cities other than yours, the fact that someone simply agrees to have coffee with you in the first place is a great sign. And once you’ve met them you’ll have a much better idea that they are who they say they are, and whether you might like to go on that first date or not.
One thing we definitely caution against: stay away from alcohol on that first meeting. I’ve never met anyone whose judgement gets better after a couple of glasses of wine!
6. Don’t connect on Facebook
We mentioned this earlier, but it’s worth explaining why: you would be surprised how many items of personally-identifiable information can be found from your Facebook profile. This can include photographs which include location information; your children’s names; your pet’s names (often used as passwords!); and so on.
Keep them out of your online life until they are well and truly a part of your real life.
7. Stay local
Unless you’re using a site like Stitch which offers specific protections for communicating with people around the world, we highly recommend connecting only with people who live in your area. This cuts down on the risk that you’re talking to someone who says they live in London when they actually live in Burkina Faso.
And this brings us to the next point, which is:
8. Use only reputable, trusted sites
By some estimates there are 11,000 dating sites available worldwide. Most of these are small, niche or hyper-specialised (dating for gun enthusiasts, truck drivers, farmers, etc) and most don’t have the resources, or desire, to ensure they keep their communities scammer-free. You are best to stick with trusted sites who do a good job of keeping their communities safe.
9. If in doubt, delete. And report.
At the first sign of any suspicious activity, report the profile to the administrator and then delete them from your contacts. Don’t linger because their profile sounds so great, or that they have developed a great connection with you. Some of the worst cases of scams involved people who discovered the scammer was a fraud but continued on anyway, letting their emotions get the better of them and throwing all caution out the window in the quest for love.
Don’t make the same mistake!
10. Beware links and attachments
Beware of any links or attachments sent to you by someone you don’t know and trust. One of the simplest but most successful cyber-attacks comes from convincing someone to click on an attachment (this is how the US government infiltrated the Iranian nuclear program, after all). It’s not likely to happen to you from someone you meet for a date in person, but it is something that a sophisticated scammer is capable of doing.
11. Use a separate email address
If you’re sticking to our guideline about not giving out your personal details then you don’t need to worry about this one.
But just in case you want to be extra-paranoid, it’s very simple to set up a dedicated email address (we’d recommend GMail) that you use only for online dating. That gives you an extra level of security that if the account is hacked, you are not at risk of losing any critical personal information, and it can’t be used to gain access to any of your other accounts.
12. Use dedicated photos
An extension of the last recommendation is to only place photos on your profile that you use for dating, and nothing else. This prevents scammers from using your photos (they know how to use Google Image Search too, you know) to trace your profile back to you and discover additional personal information about you from the Internet.
13. Constantly remind yourself you haven’t met
No matter how long you’ve known someone online, if you’ve never met them in the real world — and particularly if you haven’t followed all of the recommendations we’ve outlined above — then you need to constantly remind yourself of this fact, and treat them just like someone you haven’t met yet.
If they offer to pick you up in a car for a date, just ask yourself: if you met someone at a bar for the first time and they asked you to get in a car with them, would you say yes?
If they offer to meet you for a holiday in some exotic location, ask yourself: would you do that with someone you haven’t met yet?
Make sure you find out who they are. Do your research. Get your paper trail. And THEN, once you’ve taken all the precautions you possibly can, just remember…
14. Don’t be TOO suspicious
This one may seem totally odd after all the paranoia this article no doubt seems to be projecting, but it’s important to remember: you’re on a dating site in order to connect with people. If you are TOO suspicious of the people you meet, you’re never going to trust anyone. And they’re probably going to find you decidedly odd.
Not everyone is going to be perfect. Maybe they don’t have a Facebook profile so you can’t check them out online. Or maybe they ask for your phone number because they are trusting and just want to call you, not because they’re a scammer.
At some point you need to make a judgement call about the person you’re talking to. All we’re saying is that you need to exercise a little bit of common sense.
15. Or … Just use Stitch
Of course, I can’t end the article without mentioning what we think is the BEST way to stay safe on an online dating site: just join Stitch. No other site takes such care to ensure its members are who they say they are: all Stitch profiles go through multiple levels of verification check, with the highest form of trust involving a government-issued ID. On top of this, the community aspect of Stitch allows us to check on our members’ behavior in ways that no other site can do.
Unfortunately if you’re under 50 you’ll need to wait a few years before you can join: Stitch is only available to people over 50!
So that’s it for our guide on how to stay safe on online dating sites. Do you have safety tips of your own to share, or experiences with scammers on other dating sites? Let us know in the comments below!
* not her real name