Online dating has come a long way since the days of Match.com. Not only are there more people on dating sites and apps but there are more options available (swipes, curated matches, search etc.). The days of usernames on dating sites is quickly fading. Divulging hometowns, neighborhood residences, colleges attended, Instagram handles and daily routines can easily provide creeps, thieves and scammers with the information needed to know more about you than you ever intended. This coupled with the amount of data shared on dating profiles, the introduction of reverse image searches and data from other social media sites can lead to greater exposure for stalking, scamming, embarrassment and identity theft. Not only have I helped countless folks with their photos, bio and app choices but I have trained folks in how to recognize red flags and remain vigilant. (see press coverage here)
Here are some tips to help protect your identity, safety and reputation while online dating. Let’s talk!
Monitor Your Social Media Photos
People are sharing more photos than ever before and often times the privacy settings can be tricky to manage or keep at intended levels. Photos can reveal a lot of information, more than you could ever know. Facebook and Instagram are the two platforms that come to mind as the biggest culprits for unintended exposure. Scammers have been known to download photos from Facebook and Instagram and take on the user’s identity to create a dating profile. Don’t make your photos nor profiles public as this information contains hometown information, colleges attended and birthdays (think public posts on walls, birthday postings on Instagram etc.). Photos are the first things scammers look for when creating a dating profile and often times when enough information is gathered, they can then lookup additional information on LinkedIn to build an exhaustive profile.
Do a reverse image search of your public photos to see where they turn up and adjust your privacy settings on Facebook and Instagram to hide photos, posts and demographic data.
Review Your Routines, Check-ins
Do you check into Barry’s Bootcamp on Yelp/Foursquare every Monday at 8am? Do you constantly post gym selfies at your Zumba class? Do you post photos the view from your porch or window on Instagram? Do you reference going to the Fort Mason farmers market every Sunday? These innocent pieces of information reveal your routines i.e. where you are likely to be found and when you are likely not to be home. Thieves can use this to break into your home. Creeps can identify your routines and follow you home from work, gym or grocery stores. There is nothing wrong with expressing your hobbies but limit the audience, detail or timing of such posts, check-ins and photos. Also, take off your work ID badges when not at the office. It is easy to view them on the bus, waiting in line at lunch or at the bar during happy hour.
Limit The Information On Dating Profiles
Dating apps are notorious for requesting a significant amount of information from user’s to fill out a profile. While I believe not listing enough information on your profile can hurt your chances for success (i.e. too few photos, not enough biographical data) there is such a thing as TMI (too much information) displayed on dating profiles. When listing hometown, you don’t have to list the exact town you grew up in, a general area is suffice. This makes it easier to protect your identity (think password reminder questions – see below). Your exact job title and company is not necessary when filling out your profile for Bumble (use more generic terms i.e. product marketer at ed-tech company or analyst at financial services firm). Apps/sites like Bumble are the most vulnerable as people are more than willing to supply this info via LinkedIn.
Do not use your Linkedin headshot as one of your dating photos. All dating profile photos should be found via a Google search, they should be private. With respect to names, don’t use an initial or screen name, just change the spelling of your name to make it harder to find you online. If you come across someone who lists their Instagram handle or website, assume they are super vain, trying to solicit followers or are fake accounts. Don’t leave your dating profile blank or incomplete but also do not list every detail to a T.
Password Recovery and Reminder Questions
Answers to password reminders can be figured out with enough information. Dog’s name on Instagram? Nickname on Yelp? Place of birth? Favorite activity? High School name or mascot on Facebook? Favorite color? Most of this information does not need to be displayed online anywhere. A favorite color is not going to get you closer to getting a date nor finding your soul mate. Take the time to think of such password reset questions you have been asked and then think about where this information might be displayed so you can take the necessary steps to hide or limit visibility.
First Date Planning
I hate to tell you but most first dates from online dating can be waste of time, it happens. If you are lucky there is no chemistry and you part ways. Worse case scenario you meet someone who is controlling, obsessive and creepy. Protect yourself while going on those early dates. Meet at a public location (let someone know where you will be and when), take a cab home or have plans to meet up with a friend afterward, check in with a friend 20 minutes into your date to confirm your whereabouts. If you have reason to suspect a date is not trustworthy, minimize your exposure to having said date follow you home. If you don’t feel comfortable telling someone in person on the first date that you are not interested in him/her, then do so via the app that night, next morning. Ghosting is frowned upon unless there is a significant concern for your safety.
Back in the days of Match.com, it was quite common to exchange emails or phone numbers to communicate after matching. With the proliferation of apps, unlimited data plans and free wifi, communication is not they hurdle it once was. There is no need to exchange phone numbers or personal contact info with someone before the first date. Most people would view this as a safety precaution vs some weird social behavior. Lastly, just because you have exchanged some witty banter and know a few pieces of information about a user, doesn’t mean you should let your guard down. Use good judgment, don’t leave your drink alone with your date when you go to the restroom (basically use the same judgment you would if you meet someone offline – online is no different).
Be sure to use the restroom before you meet your date so that you don’t have to leave drinks unattended mid-date (or at least finish your drink before getting up). Limit yourself on alcoholic drinks when out with a stranger. Just because you think you know a person through their profile, photos and messages doesn’t mean you can trust the person. If in doubt, try a first date that doesn’t involve drinks. Go for a coffee, go to the farmer’s market, go to an art gallery. Make sure you have a plan for getting home so that you don’t have to rely on your date for transportation.
Communication and Apps
Until you actually meet in person and go out on a date and decide you want to see each other for another date, there is absolutely no need to exchange phone numbers, emails, whatsapp info, snapchat accounts, facebook messenger, skype etc.if you don’t feel comfortable doing so.
Asking for information like ‘Where are you’ or ‘Please send me another photo’ should raise an eyebrow. If the person you are communicating with starts to develop feelings for you before you have met in person, this is a red flag. It’s impossible to develop feelings for someone you don’t know. If this is not something triggers an alarm button for you then maybe asking for money or being too clingy is.
Not everything I point out is a red flag but enough coincidences should make you give pause. Another thing to look out for is the preferences of a user. If a person is seeking someone significantly older than he/she it could be a sign of trying to target someone for a scam. Older folks are unfortunately targeted for financial scams whereas younger men are targeted for more video blackmail scams.
Blackmail is on the rise in the online dating community. The best way to protect yourself is two-fold: 1) don’t post any photos of yourself you wouldn’t want your family, friends or employers to see and 2) don’t share any private or explicit photos with people via text, email etc. Once photos enter the electronic domain, it becomes easier to hack, copy, screenshot, share and edit. Do yourself a favor and review everything on your profile and devices and 3) do not engage in any video chats that are sexual in nature. Requesting video chats before your scheduled date is one thing but asking you to do things you don’t want to is another.
Account Verification Scam
Lately there is a new scam hitting the market called the account verification scam. The way it works is that a match inquiries about your authenticity and asks you for your verification code. Unable to provide it they will ask you to verify your account, identity through a third party site. This site will ask for your credit card and will claim no charges will be made. This scam can cost users hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Dating sites and apps will never ask you to verify your account through a third party like this. Avoid at all costs. See story about this here.
I am not here to tell you shouldn’t do online dating nor am I trying to cause you more anxiety but I what I am saying is that we can all use some more discretion about the information we divulge online via social media, professional networking sites, and dating profiles. Not everyone needs to know what you ate, where you workout, what your exact title is nor know intimate details about your that can be Googled easily. Aside from a privacy perspective, this advice is intended to aide folks when meeting for first dates from online dating – leave some things to be discussed in person. There is nothing like being candid and spontaneous on a date otherwise what else is there to discuss when you meet?
Assume your profiles will be seen by a co-worker, boss or business partner. Your profile should represent who you are but there is no need to overshare aspects you don’t want everyone to know.
Some Final Pieces Of Advice
Assume any and all conversations, video chats, attachments etc. will or can be saved. These days there are plenty of apps to record screens that block screenshots (particularly Snapchat) and of course there is recording of screens with another device. Too often scorn lovers may resort to unfortunate and awful tactics to get back at exes so protect yourself.
If you are alone, single, divorced or are suffering from depression, scammers are more likely to target you. Ideally you should be using apps once you are in a good place or are on your way to recovery, coping. Often times people who fall victims to scams are swept off their feet with compliments, praise, affection etc. even before meeting the person. It’s up to you to be patient, ask questions, meet in person, and use good judgment while on dating apps. When in doubt about someone ask a friend, family member or professional for advice or a simple gut-check on a person you met who seems to have fallen head over heels for you based on your online profile.
How To Report Online Dating Scams
The FTC has a great resource of possible types of scams to look out for. Read up on the latest information they provide as well as their online form to report scams.
Additionally the FBI has an online form to report online crimes – check out that form as well.
Dating Service Provider Resources