Call it the dark side of online dating. There’s Gable Tostee, who went for pizza after his date fell off his balcony to her death during their notorious Tinder date turned nightmare. In the UK, there’s the alleged serial killer Stephen Port, who has inspired headlines like “Grindr To Ground Up” — hookups from hell are constantly making the news.
In January 2016, Craigslist, which was used by the Long Island serial killer and “Craigslist Killer” Philip Markoff, has played a role in over 100 murders, according to The Washington Post.
Of course, most evenings out don’t inspire Investigation Discovery episodes. But as a sex columnist turned private investigator, I’ve seen more than my fair share of friends and clients who got burned when their dream dates ended in stalking, catfishing — or even murder.
Here are some of the social-media safety tips that I share with them.
Turn off location services.
The same technology that makes it super easy to find that awesome Thai restaurant can also lead dangerous people to your door. If you turn on location services, and allow the camera to access your location, anyone can view the photo’s metadata and figure out your exact GPS coordinates. Yes, that does mean that sending a penis pic from your bedroom can give a stalker your address!
Even after that third margarita, it’s also smart to never assume that anything online is anonymous. Hackers — and investigators — have been known to spoof GPS data in order to locate Tinder users. The company has supposedly fixed that vulnerability now, but new ones emerge all the time. It’s a pain — but, in my opinion, safer — to use the app in a public place.
Do some social media stalking — but don’t go too far.
Tinder actually advises this. “We don’t conduct criminal background checks on our users, so it’s up to you to do your own research and remain cautious,” the site warns. All you have is a username? People tend to use the same one on multiple sites, so you can run the name or email on a social media site like Pipl to see what other information they have available online.
If you’re using Tinder, you can also use the Facebook Graph search to see if you have friends in common. Don’t over-Google: You want enough information to ensure your safety, not completely ruin the mystery. Trust me, there is nothing creepier than a guy interrupting your funny childhood story to let you know he’s already read all about your father issues — and friended your dad — before the first date.
Dating and detective work have a lot in common.
As a detective who uses multiple aliases online when working a case, I know that finding your crush on social media is just the first step.
Rather than giving someone the benefit of the doubt, detectives trust — but verify information. Ask questions. A first and last name, general area where they live, and a bit of detail about what they do for a living are natural questions in a relationship’s early days. Plus this allows you to plug the data into a site like Spokeo or WhitePages. If you can’t find a record of the name anywhere, the person may not exist. If their name does come up, you can see who else (kids, wife, girlfriend, boyfriend) pops up at the residence.
Assuming you’re not looking for a no-strings-attached fling, this can come in handy in figuring out if they are really “separated” or just “separated for the night.”Run a reverse image search.
I have busted a ton of catfish — and men who think they look like Christian Bale — this way. Google’s reverse image search can immediately tell you if a profile photo is actually a stock male model, for example, or let you know if a profile picture has been re-used on several dating sites — a classic ploy for identity thieves.
Listen to your mom.
Yes, the old-school school safety tips that your mom gave you still work. Meet in public. Take your own transportation.
Hotels, by the way, do not count as a public place as soon as the room door shuts. Hotels can give potential killers the illusion of anonymity. One friend who likes to meet her dates in hotels tells me, “If someone murders me, he’ll definitely get caught. There are security cameras everywhere!” She may be right, but at that point she would also be dead. Is it worth it?
One more that you may not want to share with mom: I recommend picking a “sex accountability buddy” who you know you can send a judgment-free text to with your paramour’s name and address if you’re headed home with someone new.
Be careful of sob stories — and don’t EVER send money.
Catfish always seem to be having bad luck. One client came to me because she was concerned about her “boyfriend,” whom she had never met in person. Her “military man” said he was trapped in Nigeria after losing his entire family in a car accident, having his kidney removed in a hotel room, and facing quarantine after contracting the Zika virus — all in the same week! Of course, I had to break the news that the thousands of dollars she had sent were gone forever into a black hole — but when he claimed that he needed surgery to have a metal hook installed after losing his hand in an industrial accident, I stopped her from sending more cash to the criminal I nicknamed “Captain Hook.”
I repeat: Never, ever send money to someone you don’t know. Actually, the same advice applies to people you do know — I suggest never lending money unless you can afford to write it off as a gift.
Don’t make yourself an easy target.
When catfish-proofing a profile, beware of heartfelt phrases like “I’ve been working my whole life to raise my kids and now I’m looking to share my success with that special someone.” Because for scammers, “sweet” translates to “sucker,” and they will read that same phrase as “Lonely and ready to spend money.”
Use common sense with pictures too. I’m betting that you wouldn’t walk out on a dangerous street flashing million-dollar jewelry, right? But that’s exactly what celebs did in the “Bling Ring” case (when thieves broke into the Los Angeles homes of stars who wrote on Twitter that they were out of the house). And it’s probably no coincidence that Kim Kardashian was robbed of over $7 million worth of jewelry shortly after flashing a gigantic rock on Instagram.
The internet is not a safe space. There are shady people everywhere — just like in real life.
If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Love at first sight can be legit. But, since the euphoria of falling in love is chemically similar in the brain to a massive hit of cocaine, it pays to make sure you’re making a decision that’s not a result of being high on dopamine.
If someone appears to match you in every way, have answers to all of your questions or know you inside and out within seven minutes, ask yourself honestly where they could have found it. In New York, a group of enterprising female criminals targeted athletes who posted pictures of themselves wearing very expensive watches — along with the location of the club they were in — on Instagram. The thieves engineered a “fateful” meeting, then followed the map to the location, struck up a conversation with the guys, and then stole the items from their homes and hotels later.
Pretending to be other people and faking common interests is a classic way to get people to open up to you. Take it from me — or from one of my many aliases, who have spent time cozying up to people in bars, on planes, and online in order to get valuable information — oversharing is not the same thing as intimacy.
If they won’t meet, hit delete!
Finally, it’s best to think of it as “online meeting” rather than “online dating” — whether you’re looking for a casual hookup or something more substantial, the idea is to meet the person — in public, and in person — as soon as possible.
Main photo: “Dante And Virgil In Hell” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau [WikiMedia Commons]