By Amy Stevens Seal, CEO/Founder, The LDS Matchmaker
While the end of October conjures up creepy, scary and crazy characters, the idea of putting information on a website for random strangers to review, can be equally disturbing for many women and some men.
We know from relationship experts throughout the world that one of the core needs of a woman is physical, emotional, financial and spiritual security.
During the 12 years I spent in the mid-singles scene I consistently dated from online introductions. When I first started online dating in 2002, it was new enough that my parents were horrified to learn that I would be meeting up with complete strangers, who I met over the Internet and pled with me to abandon the idea. The many stories they heard and read about in the media were at the root of their trepidation.
While the tragic incidents we hear about do happen (as they do with any other method of meeting the opposite sex), there are many things you can do to keep yourself safe from scams and predators. It would be a shame to eliminate online dating altogether as an option for meeting potential dates since at least one third of marriages are now the result of online dating.
Sometimes it does feel like instant chemistry, even a spiritual connection with someone we meet online, as if they “get us” or we have known them forever. It’s important to remember that a true connection builds over time and includes consistent, trustworthy behaviors.
As a veteran online dater and success story, I thoroughly enjoyed the ability to proactively find dates when other methods weren’t producing results. Even though most of my dates came from LDS focused websites, I learned firsthand the importance of keeping my guard up and following the spirit and my instincts.
It’s important to note that the majority of scary stories, rapes and assaults happen when a woman lets her guard down, gives too much personal information, meets in a non-public place and/or gets in a car with someone she really doesn’t know. Too often women lose their common sense or abandon their self-protection to a total stranger to pursue a romantic connection.
The advice and stories below are a compilation of my experiences, lessons learned and common sense tips to follow no matter how much of a connection you feel:
#1 FIND OUT ABOUT YOUR DATE BEFORE MEETING IN PERSON
From reading Mike’s profile, there wasn’t much real information other than humorous anecdotes and the photo he used was so small that I really couldn’t tell what he looked like.
After exchanging a few emails with him, I decided he was pretty hilarious and I was anxious to meet him in person. When we spoke by phone to arrange details, he made me laugh a lot but it was clear from his stories and approach to life that he lacked judgment skills. I had already convinced myself that he was great and so I minimized my concerns and arranged to meet him at a local restaurant in downtown Salt Lake.
The date couldn’t have been more of a train wreck as he talked about himself for two hours straight and complained about his lack of ability to get past the first date. He was also quite large, which wouldn’t have been a show stopper for me except that he spent time trying to convince me that healthy eating was a waste of time, since “everyone is going to die of something, right?”
When dinner was over I thanked him and said goodbye. I would have chalked it up to just being a bad date but the following day I received a PayPal invoice from Mike asking me to pay him back for the full amount of both of our dinners (you can’t make this stuff up). When he realized from my goodbye tone that I was not interested, he decided that he wanted to be compensated.
I was shocked and a little scared as I recollected some of his stories about how he sought retribution in other circumstances. I wondered what he would do if I did or didn’t pay the PayPal invoice. My heart sunk as I realized I had given him my last name and place of employment. I wondered if we would end up on Judge Judy or People’s Court battling it out for the $37.51 bill.
Although I can laugh about it now, it was actually a very nerve racking experience for me. I realized that agreeing to meet him for dinner and giving him personal information about myself, when I virtually knew nothing about him, put me in a vulnerable spot.
There is a fine line between spending too much time getting to know someone online and not enough to feel safe enough to meet for a date. A general rule of thumb is to exchange 4-5 substantial messages and preferably talk on the phone to get a feel for their personality.
Use a google voice number and a generic email to get to know someone before disclosing personal information or meeting in person. Be cautious when sharing personal information that could reveal your identity during this “getting to know each other” phase. Never include your last name, home address, place of work or any other identifying information in your initial communications.
#2 MEET SOONER RATHER THAN LATER
My first year of online dating, I fell hard for a guy in Colorado named Dan. Our email exchange quickly evolved into several messages each day and even talking about ourselves as a couple. I became hyper focused on Dan and stopped messaging or dating other guys. I really believed my feelings for him were real and meant something great about our future.
After building up the anticipation for 2 weeks, we finally had our first phone call. It was a total let down! He was nothing close to how he came across over email. He was pessimistic and boring – talked about himself the entire phone call. He also shared some disturbing facts about some previous addictions he had struggled with. After the phone call, my excitement to meet Dan was gone and I was left to mull over the concerns I felt from our conversation.
Since we lived in different states, spending the time and money to see each other was going to be difficult and I didn’t feel good about pursuing things with him further. It seemed that much of the chemistry we had was really an illusion based on who I wanted him to be.
I felt foolish for putting so much energy into the relationship and closing the door with other men who could have been possibilities. Although we never actually “dated” I still felt the disappointment of going through a break up – all because I put my heart on the line for someone I had never met.
Don’t spend too much time and effort getting to know someone before you meet – or at least talk on the phone. Avoid the temptation to spend too much time and energy on the relationship before you meet by keeping your options open.
Experts agree that emailing/dating a few different people at the same time in the early stages of dating help to avoid becoming too focused on one person. It also takes the pressure off and allows you to be yourself and enjoy the process more fully.
#3 TELL A FRIEND DETAILS ABOUT YOUR DATE
When I first started online dating, I was scared to death and so I gave my sister all of the details about my date. I told her to call the police if she didn’t hear from me in two hours.
Halfway through the date I got up to use the bathroom and looked at my phone. I had a text from my sister, saying that I should try not to look so bored. It was then that I realized that she had actually been spying on me with her husband on the other side of the restaurant.
It wasn’t the most exciting date but at least I was safe :).
Have a friend or family member act as your personal security advisor to stay safe and make the process more enjoyable. Make sure you give them all of the details you have about the individual you are meeting and your plans for the date. Have your cell phone with you to notify them of any changes.
Although it’s not necessary to have your security advisor be at the same place as your date – it can’t hurt! If you feel particularly cautious about a certain date or are new to the process, it might be a fun way to get them involved.
#4 ALWAYS MEET (AND STAY) IN A PUBLIC PLACE
The one time I broke this rule was after I spoke on the phone for the first time with a guy I met online – we’ll call him Jake. On the call, we discovered that Jake had gone to high school with my brother in law 20 years earlier. They played football together and had some good times.
So I figured it was safe to let Jake pick me up at my house but I recall getting a strange feeling as we were driving off that perhaps I shouldn’t have broken this rule. After a series of events, I discovered later that Jake’s story about his ex-wife didn’t match up and he had actually spent time in prison after their divorce. Turns out a lot happened in the 20 years since my brother in law last spoke to Jake. Luckily I went unharmed but let’s just say it was a close call . . .
Choose a time and place of your date wisely. Meet for the first time in a populated, public location at a decent hour when lots of people will be around – never in a private or remote location, and never at your or your date’s home or apartment. It is important not to go back to your date’s home or bring them back to yours on the first date. If your date pressures you, end the date and leave at once.
#5 BE CAUTIOUS AND LISTEN TO YOUR GUT
I met Casey online but not from a dating website at first. We connected on Facebook through a group we shared in common. I made some posts about job opportunities in the group since I was working as a recruiter. He was very flattering and appreciative of what I shared and even made me an admin of the group.
I admit that I was intrigued by Casey from the beginning and was excited to discover that he viewed my profile on an LDS dating site. He seemed like a leader, was handsome and had appeared to be financially stable, with solid educational background – all things I found attractive. Because of his accomplishments and the fact that he graduated from BYU, I made several assumptions about his character.
He asked for my number and wanted to meet right away. We made plans to meet at a football game later that day. As I interacted with him at the game, I noticed a lot of intensity and lack of empathy, which made me a little uncomfortable.
After the game he offered to take me to a friend’s house to hang out a bit more. For some reason I just didn’t feel good about it. It had been a long day and I wasn’t feeling the connection with him that I had hoped for, so I politely declined and said goodbye.
A few months later Casey’s name attached to numerous rape and sexual assault allegations were all over the news. I was shocked to realize just how close I had come to being another potential victim. I was so thankful that I listened to that little voice that cautioned me away from spending more time with him.
Take notice of red flags and listen to your instincts. Drive yourself to and from the date. In case things don’t work out, you need to be in control of your own ride – even if you take a taxi.
Keep personal items with you at all times to avoid personal information being stolen. Keep your beverage with you and in your sight always so that it can’t be tampered with.
Stay alert, keep a clear mind and avoid doing anything that would impair your judgment and cause you to make a decision you could regret.
In summary, be cautious and use common sense. Trust your instincts and remember that you have control over the situation. If you’re talking to someone online or by phone and they say things that raise your suspicions, come up with a way to end the conversation.
And last but not least don’t forget to have fun! Instead of getting upset when you come across what may seem like strange or creepy profiles, allow yourself to be entertained by the process.
*A good resource for advice on how to avoid online romance scams is available through the U.S. Federal Trade Commission at: http://onguardonline.gov/articles/0004-online-dating-scams
**Names have been changed in all stories shared