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DATING APPREHENSION

Taking safety measures can help keep predators at bay

Alyson Ward - Houston Chronicle - 17-08-15
Original article not available
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Can an app keep you safe?

Most dating apps ofler at least a few tools to help users protect themselves from a potential swindler or predator. But there’s usually a catch. Here’s a look at some examples.

Match.com’s matchPhone lets you talk on the phone without giving out your real phone number. Match issues you a new phone number, and when your potential date calls, it’s forwarded through Match to your phone. The catch: To initiate a matchPhone call, you’ll have to pay extra — it’s a premium service.

Tinder authenticates users by connecting to their Facebook profiles. That means the photos you see are probably legit because they’re the photos users share with their mom, their best friend and their high school basketball coach. The catch: Anyone can make a fake social-media account. But if you look carefully, you can probably tell whether your potential love interest’s profile reflects the life of a real person.

eHarmony employs RelyID, which uses public information to verify your identity. It also oflers Secure Call, which allows you to chat without sharing your real phone number. The catch: To get these safety features, you have to buy an eHarmony premium subscription.

Hinge uses social media to make connections, so your matches are already in your extended social network. That means your potential mates are more likely to be real people. Besides that, you get the person’s full name — which makes them searchable online. Hinge recently started letting users add video to their profiles; if this feature grows commonplace in dating apps, it’ll become more dificult to build a fake profile. The catch: Many of Hinge’s connections are pretty tenuous — the friend of a friend of a Facebook friend, for instance. And we all know people who have Facebook friends they don’t know — so don’t let the “friends of friends” concept lull you into a false sense of security.

So, how worried should we be about dating apps? It’s a question worth considering given the recent news that the app Grindr, which is designed to help gay men meet, may have played a role in the deaths of Glenser Soliman and An Vinh Nguyen, two Houston-area men who disappeared earlier this year.

Harris County sheriff’s investigators say both men may have been lured to a killer’s apartment by a fake Grindr profile.

The news “should be a little bit of a wake-up call” for people using apps to meet partners, said John Wright, the editor of Houston’s OutSmart magazine, which is published for the LGBTQ community. “I would certainly hope that cases like this would cause people to think twice.”

Women almost always are urged to take precautions when meeting men they don’t know. But men tend not to think of themselves as potential crime victims when they’re meeting strangers for dates or sex, said Andrew Edmonson, a gay-rights activist in Houston.

“As men, we are used to having the privilege of going where we want to and when we want to, not having to worry that our lives may be in danger or that we could be attacked,” he said, adding that the news about Soliman and Nguyen “makes us realize how very vulnerable we might be.”

Of course, dating apps aren’t new, and this isn’t the first time they’ve been used to hurt someone.

In London last year, a man was sentenced to life in prison for drugging and killing four young men he met through Grindr. And four Dallas-area men have been indicted on federal hate-crime charges for using fake Grindr profiles to target gay men, tying up their victims and stealing their property.

“You don’t have to be paranoid. It’s about doing your due diligence and taking time to trust but verify.”

“You don’t have to be paranoid. It’s about doing your due diligence and taking time to trust but verify.” - Kristin Judge, director of government affairs at the National Cyber Security Alliance

“I think a lot of gay men do not really take any precautions when using these apps,” said Wright, who has covered the issue and done some online dating himself. “It’s pretty nonchalant, and people don’t really consider the risks.”

This doesn’t mean we need to ban dating apps — or even the ones used mostly for hookups. There’s not a killer lurking behind every dating profile, said Kristin Judge, director of government affairs at the National Cyber Security Alliance.

“You don’t have to be paranoid,” she said. “It’s about doing your due diligence and taking time to trust but verify.”

Of course, there’s a big difference between using apps to find a relationship and using them for a quick, anonymous hookup. The “rules” are different, and so are the safety concerns. If you’re trying to find a long-term relationship, the apps offer tips and tools for staying out of harm’s way. If you want a one-night stand, you won’t find as many safeguards.

The Hinge dating app, for instance, forged its identity by promising “no randos,” or random encounters with strangers. It connects users with friends of friends online. Hinge displays each user’s full name and pulls profile photos directly from Facebook.

Grindr, on the other hand, knows its users are often looking for a “rando.” It tells members to be “careful about revealing your identity” and reminds them that “a photo can’t always be trusted.”

This is why it’s important to be careful, Wright said. There’s a lot of talk about taking precautions during sex, he said, but meeting people safely should be planned just as carefully. “It’s really an extension of safe sex, in some respects.”

DATING APP SAFETY TIPS

Whether you’re looking for a relationship or a quick meet up, there are precautions that can be done to keep yourself safe.

“It’s not like you have to conduct an extensive background check on somebody or research their whole history,” Wright said. Here are what he calls some “little common-sense things that aren’t that much of an inconvenience”:

Do some research. “Don’t assume (you’re safe) because someone says ‘this is who I am’ online,” Judge said. “You have to assume they may not be that person.”

You don’t have to stalk your date online, but take the time to check out social-media profiles. Grindr gives you the choice to add social-media links to your profile, Wright said. Apps such as Hinge and Tinder make social media an integral part of connecting.

Of course, people can set up fake social-media profiles, too. But by poking around a bit, you can get a sense of whether or not the profile represents a real, live person.

If you’re suspicious, request more photos. “If someone’s using a fake profile, chances are they don’t have many photos to go with it,” Wright said, so when you ask for more, they’ll disappear.

Meanwhile, you can try to verify the photos you do have. Run them through a reverse search in Google Images. You might get more information on your date — or it might reveal that the photo belongs to someone else.

Before you meet, get to know someone. If this is a hookup, you’re not going to spend three weeks trading messages. But if you’re looking for a relationship, Judge said, get to know each other before you give out your phone number or agree to meet. “This is advice I give to my 21-year-old daughter,” she said: Look for red flags and details that don’t add up. Use the site to talk until you feel comfortable enough to share your SnapChat or your phone number.

Find another layer of information. Even if you want to meet up right away, it doesn’t hurt to ask for a little more information, Wright said. If your potential date hasn’t put links to social media in his bio, ask for them. Or arrange a way to speak by phone. Asking for a little more proof will help scare away some of the fakes.

Meet up in a public place. Even if it’s a hookup, you can meet first at a bar or coffee shop. This will give you a chance to find out whether your date is the person you expected — and whether you feel safe — before you go anywhere alone together.

Tell somebody where you’re going. Get a friend to look out for you, Judge said. You can promise to check in when you get home safely — or you can share your phone’s location with that person so that someone will always know where you are.

Don’t carry extra valuables with you. Leave expensive jewelry and watches at home, and bring only the minimum cash and credit cards you’ll need. If you run into trouble, you won’t lose everything.

If something happens to you, report it. If you feel you can do so safely, tell the police, Wright said. “By reporting it, you’re potentially preventing something as bad or worse from happening to someone else.”

 


Tags: dating, safety measures, Grindr, fake profiles, Match, eHarmony, Hinge, LGBTQ, gay men, secure call

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