Apps are an increasingly popular way to search for love, but despite the ease of meeting new people, online dating can pose risks.
In July, 52-year-old Aubrey Trail was found guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Sydney Loofe, a 24-year-old Nebraska woman who disappeared after a date with her Tinder match in 2017. Also last month, Juliane Kellner, 42, died in a murder-suicide in Henderson, Nevada, according to police — and her son, 21-year-old Brandon Wilt, believes she met her killer on a dating website, KVVU reported.
While dating in any form can be dangerous, experts Julie Spira, CEO of Cyber-Dating Expert, and Laurie Davis Edwards, founder of The Worthy One, tell PEOPLE there are important steps you can take to safely explore the apps.
How do you know a potential date is real?
“I think one of the first red flags is about the photo,” Spira says. “If there are no photos, it’s a red flag. If there is only one photo, and they look like a hot model, it’s a red flag.”
Spira cautions dating app users against trusting photos that seem unrealistic or are blurry, and advises checking a potential date’s pictures with other social media platforms, “to make sure they match up with to what we are seeing on the dating app.”
In the “predate phase,” Spira tells her clients to use Facebook and Instagram accounts to find mutual friends.
If there are friends and followers in common, “You can then ask your friend if they really know this person to get a digital thumbs up or down before actually accepting a date,” Spira says.
One simple trick for finding those social media profiles and the origin of an image on the internet: Take a screenshot of a user’s profile photo, crop out everything outside the original image and then upload the picture to Google’s reverse image search tool. Note: The search might not yield useful results if your potential date’s social media accounts are set to private or the image has not been posted elsewhere.
When do you meet in real life?
Once you’ve decided your potential date is real, it might be time to meet in real life.
According to Spira, “If you aren’t making plans and messaging back and forth in the first few days, chances are they are chatting with a lot of different people and have no intentions of meeting you.”
An unwillingness to meet could indicate that someone is hiding something or using a dating site for the wrong reasons.
“The point of dating online is actually meeting in person,” Spira says. “It’s not to have a digital pen pal. So, if somebody is canceling or postponing and not making plans to meet IRL, it’s a real problem.”
Where do you go and how do you get there?
Public spots are the best choice, so you can easily get away or find help if a date becomes uncomfortable or unsafe.
“Be careful about scheduling a first date for a hike,” Spira warns. “You don’t want to be on a mountain top — you want to have an easy out.”
A first date spot should also be a place that is easily accessible by driving yourself, using a ride-sharing service, taking public transportation or walking.
“You should never let somebody pick you up at home, on a first or second date,” Spira says. “In case it goes south, you don’t want them showing up, knowing where you live.”
After a date is set, what do you do?
Spira says you should always let someone in your life know that you are going on the date.
“Have a BFF that’s your dating buddy that you check in with,” she says.
Tell them who your date is, where you are going and how the date’s progressing. And if you feel uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to leave.
“You don’t owe anybody any extra minutes of your precious time,” Spira says.
If a date continues to message you after you have told them you aren’t interested, most dating apps and websites allow users to report inappropriate conduct and block people from contacting them again. For any alarming behavior beyond that, contact the authorities.
Trust your gut
Beyond paying attention to the dos and don’ts and clear red flags, Davis Edwards tells people to use their intuition.
“It’s really about what you’re feeling,” she says.
Davis Edwards often asks people to think about their boundaries before even making an online profile. That way, it’s clear “what’s okay with you and what’s not okay with you” when on a date, she advises.
A list of warning signs is great to keep top of mind, but “you don’t need to see it on a list to know if the feeling is on or off. If you have the feeling that something’s not right, hold to that feeling” and take action, Davis Edwards says.
While online dating horror stories are out there, Davis Edwards says that it shouldn’t discourage you from using the internet to find love: “Those stories do exist, and it doesn’t need to be your story.”
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