Written by: Alexandra Palmer | Best Company Editorial Team
Last Updated: July 29th, 2020
Online dating can be scary — and I'm not talking about the dreaded first date.
In 2014, 12 UK women met James Richards, a charming, middle-aged gentleman, on Match.com. James made them feel great about themselves, made them feel needed, and, as a bonus, was up to receive a £100 million inheritance. But James had just one small problem: he needed help paying the legal fees to free up his soon-to-be fortune.
In love and moved with compassion, the women each wired money to James. One wired as much as £174,000 to him.
But then one woman received the same exact email from James and began to suspect that something was amiss. The authorities got involved, and James was revealed to be a fictional profile maintained by four conmen. By the time their scam was discovered, they had swindled the women out of almost £250,000.
Sadly, in the wrong hands, online dating sites can be dangerous. Horror stories run from financial scams to webcam blackmail to situations straight out of the TV show "To Catch a Predator." Unfortunately, online dating sites are currently able or willing to do little to keep dangerous individuals out. Match.com, for instance, offers only this comment:
"We don't conduct criminal background checks on our users, so if you would like more information about someone, we recommend using the Internet and government resources available to everyone."
Does this mean that you should avoid online dating sites at all costs for fear of being taken advantage of?
No. Online dating sites are filled with great, sincere people who are just out to have a good time. If you can weed out the bad apples, you can have an enjoyable experience meeting all the good ones. As a consumer, you have the ability to do your homework and be smart about your online dating activities. Here are eight rules to keep you and your identity safe from those who use online dating sites to scam unsuspecting daters or to lure them into dangerous situations:
1. Don't give money to anyone
If someone asks you for money while you're talking to them via your favorite online dating site, there's a really good chance you're talking to a scammer. This is so common that the Office of Justice Programs' Online Dating page instructs online daters to "not wire money to cover travel, medical emergencies, hotel bills, hospital bills for a child or other relative, visas or other official documents, or losses from a temporary financial setback." Match.com urges its users to ignore any request for money and report it to them immediately.
2. Don't trust people who want to give you money
Remember that Nigerian Prince email you got once? This is the online dating version of that. People who go up to perfect strangers and offer you absurd amounts of money are most likely about to ask you for your bank account number.
3. Don't give your personal information
When you seem to be hitting it off with someone, you might feel obliged to share personal information when they ask for it, as a way to keep the relationship moving forward. Match.com cautions:
"Be careful about sharing other personal information, such as your full name, phone number, email and address. You are in control of your online dating experience at all times - remain anonymous until you feel ready."
This includes any information or pictures about yourself that could give someone any sort of hold over you. Don't share until you really know and trust the person on the other end.
4. Do take your time
One surefire sign of a scammer or predator is the way they claim to be in love with you after only minutes of chatting. Or the way they try to rush you off your dating site and onto a private IM chat. Don't fall for it. Real relationships take days, weeks, months, even years to develop.
5. Do your homework before dating
If things have gone well for you, you end up with the invitation: "So you want to meet somewhere?" Again, you might feel obliged to say "yes," but considering that you're about to put yourself in the same place as a person that you're still relatively unfamiliar with, this is one of those times when you need to be smart and do your homework. Before you accept the invite, ask for their identification or driver's license number and run a background check. Sites like InstantCheckmate.com will charge you a small amount to run a report on anyone based on state and federal criminal records, social accounts, marriage records, divorce records, sex offenses, and more.
6. Don't let your guard down on dates
Yes, you want to be yourself on dates and have great time, but not until you've ensured your safety with some precautionary measures. GetSafeOnline.org recommends that online daters avoid the followinf at all costs:
- Go on your date without telling anyone
- Meet somewhere isolated or at your or someone else's home
- Allow your date to pick you up at your home, hotel or place of work
- Leave your drink unattended
- Leave your personal items unattended
- Feel pressured to stay or do anything
- Go to a place where you can't contact anyone
7. Don't click on email links that seem off
Phishing emails arrive in your inbox, usually telling you that something is wrong with your online dating account and requires your attention right away and that you need to click on their link to fix the problem. They take you to a site that looks like your dating site but isn't and then try to get you to enter your password or your personal and financial information on a fake form. Before you click on any link in this kind of email, contact your online dating site's customer service team to make sure it's real.
8. Do report suspicious activity
As a consumer, and in your best interest, you need to report these activities, even when you're not sure. Report it to your online dating site's customer service team. This helps them improve their tools for keeping bad guys out of their site. And then report it to the Federal Trade Commission, the FBI's Crime Complaint Center, and your state attorney general. Finally, submit a consumer review to let others consumers know and to put the pressure on your online dating service to improve their screening processes.
When You're Safe, the Fun Can Start
Online dating can be an exciting prospect, filled with adventure and the joy of meeting people who share your interests, quite possibly someone you might want to spend the rest of your life with. However, to make sure that the dishonest few don't ruin your experience, always take the time and attention to protect yourself and your identity. Then the fun can start.
Have you had a bad experience on an online dating site? Maybe a great one? Make your voice heard and submit your consumer review.