Online Dating - Is it Safe?
It's not so long ago that using the Internet to find a partner was frowned upon by just about everyone - even some of the people who were doing it! But the popularity of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have changed all that.
These days with the hectic lifestyles that many of us lead, it's quite fashionable to have an online dating profile. After all, it's far easier to use a dating site than to go out on the town hoping to meet someone new. However, there are still issues around online dating that can be confusing and even worrying, such as security and recurring fees.
Not for Geeks
Part of the problem with dating sites in the past has been the inference that, like a lot of programs and facilities found on our computers, you had to be technically minded and maybe even a bit of a geek to be able to deal with navigating your way through the myriad of forms, questions and communication tools. Thankfully, technology has made everything easier and if you can handle sending emails and surfing the Internet, it's a fair bet you'll be able to deal with a dating site.
So What Exactly is Online Dating?
Put simply, it's a means of presenting yourself in words and pictures, and then through searches and matching processes, finding other daters who might be compatible with you. Ultimately of course, the aim is to meet up with a potential partner.
Usually the process of creating a dating profile involves signing up using your email address and supplying personal details including your name, address (for fee-paying sites) and details about you - interests, hobbies, likes/dislikes and what it is you're looking for in a prospective soulmate.
How Safe is My Personal Information?
One of the questions we all ask at some point - with all that personal information out there for the world to see - is how can I be sure I won't be targeted by fraudsters or become the victim of identity theft? The short answer is - you can't. However, there are several things you can do to help keep yourself safe.
- Don't use your main email address, especially if your name is part of it (eg joanjohnstone@...). Make up a new one that doesn't use your name, birth date or other identifying features. Also, try to use a mix of numbers letters and symbols, like 5leePy-p4nt5@... This helps keep you safe from spammers. Your email password too, should be something hard to guess.
- In the written part of your dating profile, try to avoid including information that might give any clues to where you live or work. Instead, concentrate on writing about the sort of person you are and the special things that make you unique.
- If you upload a photo, make sure it's one that shows only you. Don't include friends, or work colleagues, e.g. photos of you and your mates on a night out. This could give clues to where you live/work. In any case, daters want to see you, not your pals.
- Some dating sites allow you to include your mobile phone number in your profile - don't! These are the kinds of details that will land you in trouble. There are sites that will let you pay for services using your phone, or subscribe to email and text alerts. These sorts of things are usually fine, but check that the site won't display your number on your profile or share it with third parties.
- When you've been emailing, messaging or using video to communicate with another member and you decide you'd like to meet up, don't be tempted to divulge your phone number, address or even the area where you live. There'll be plenty of time for that when you've built up trust with your new partner.
- On the subject of where you live, it's a good idea to keep quiet about your actual location. If you live in Camden, London, it's safer to just say London. Don't be too specific.
Throwaway Email Addresses
One way of protecting yourself further, is to use a disposable email address. Lots of companies provide these and there's a variety of times-scales involved. For instance, Dead Address will provide you with an email address that can be deleted easily after use. 10 Minute Email will do the same thing for 10 minutes, after which it's automatically deleted.
Short-term emails like this are handy if you only want to check out a dating site, but haven't decided to sign up and don't want to be hassled with spam or countless requests to upgrade your account. Other providers, like Easy Trash Mail can forward your mail to your usual account, though of course you do have to provide your email details, so it's not completely anonymous. Obviously, if you choose to use a disposable email address, make sure it'll last for the period of time that you'll need it.
How Will I Know if I'm Being Spammed?
One of the scariest things about online dating is the fear of being swindled. Scammers aim to extort money from unsuspecting victims, and will use many different tactics to do this. The popular "soldier scam" has been around for a long time and consists of several elements which scammers often use. The scenario runs like this:
- the scammer will say they are located somewhere that has no access to landlines – such as in the army or oil industry
- they may try to make the online relationship seem more personal than it actually is by sharing intimate details
- they may mention "love" and "happiness" in their messages, claiming that you are the one they've been looking for and that the relationship is "sacred" or "sent from God".
- they will frequently mention financial difficulties in their online chat with the targeted person
- a crisis of some sort will occur, leaving them in a "vulnerable" position
- urgent financial assistance is the only way out of their predicament
Another ruse (which I’ve experienced myself) is to say they want to meet you, but cannot afford the airfare. In my case, the hustle involved using an attractive woman to pose on video messaging while the real scammer was the one doing all the typing (my suspicions were roused when my “date” claimed she couldn’t appear on video for more than a few seconds as she was very timid). Thankfully, I saw the light before handing over any money.
Look for the warning signs:
- declarations of undying love after a very short time online
- repeated talk of financial difficulties (may claim to work in a poorly paid job, or have elderly relatives to support)
- claiming to need to see you soon so they can show you how rich and fruitful your relationship will be (these often have a religious or cultural slant)
Obviously, there are lots of people who are totally genuine, but legitimate individuals will not expect you to finance their new passport/air fare or anything else that involves you giving them loads of cash.
How Much Will I Have to Pay?
Fees for dating online range from a few pounds (as low as £1.95 for three days) to several hundreds. Most sites will layout the fee scales showing how much you pay and for how long. Inevitably, the more you pay, the more time you get for your money, so a six-month sign-up will work out cheaper than a one week sign-up. However BEWARE! I know it’s tedious and you’ll want to dive right in to the search for your true love, but please, please, please..read the small print.
And What About Those Pesky Fees?
One of the big problems with paid dating sites is that the majority of them use recurring fees. This means that when you sign up for one of their packages (whether it's a 3-day trial or a 6-month deal), as soon as your current agreement is finished, the site will take the same amount out of your account again.
This tactic usually continues until you cancel the arrangement. Cancelling, however, can open up its own box of tricks, especially with short-term deals: some of the 1 or 3-day trials will revert to a monthly or even 6-monthly package as soon as the trial period is over.
Most sites don't give refunds and the cancellation process can be tedious. Some will demand that you give notice in writing anything up to 14 days before your next payment is due. Others will have a section where you simply email them or tick the relevant boxes to end your subscription. In all cases, the watchword is Take Care. Read the small print and make sure you understand what you're signing up for before handing over any cash.
Online dating is perfectly safe so long as you think before making any major decisions. Inevitably, as the old saying goes - if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And if you do take the plunge and sign up for a dating site, remember the wise words of good old Sergeant Phil Esterhaus:
Hey, hey hey! Let's be careful out there!