Online dating has grown into a £1.7bn industry, with thousands of websites now offering matchmaking services. It’s estimated that one in five people between 25-34 have used these sites to find a partner.
Whilst the vast majority of people on dating sites are genuine, a small minority may be using these sites for less-than-honest reasons.
In this section, you can find out more about how to better protect yourself both online and in the real world when using these sites, to guard against those who may be out to financially take advantage of you or worse, physically harm you.
Ways to stay safe when using online dating sites
1. Choose an approved website.
With so many sites on the market, it's important to firstly make sure that the one you're using is a member of the Online Dating Association. This ensures that the site adheres to the industry code of practice around privacy and reporting abuse.
2. Don’t pick a username that can identify you personally.
Make sure your username doesn’t include details such as your surname, where you work or live, or any other personal details.
3. Keep your personal details as private as possible.
Only divulge your personal details, such as your full name and where you live, when you’re absolutely comfortable with the person that you’re talking with. Consider using separate photos for your online dating profile as well, so your image can’t be searched for on search engines or social media sites.
4. Keep your dating life separate.
E-mail addresses are easy to create. Use a separate one for your online dating so that you don’t have to change your main address should someone you don’t want to talk to anymore continue to contact you.
5. Report unusual or abusive behaviour.
If you’re being pressured into revealing information, to meet up or to share intimate details, then report the person to the online dating service. This helps to not only protect yourself, but other users of the site too.
Ways to stay safe when you meet face-to-face
Whilst you may have gotten to know the person you’re meeting very well online, that same person may be very different in real life and not even be who they say they are.
Expectations may be very different between the two of you, as you may have quite personal and even intimate conversations via e-mail or messenger. Because of this, there may be false expectations that the ‘offline’ meeting may be just as intense.
It’s important to set out what you anticipate from the meeting, and that you don’t drop your guard because of feelings that you truly know the person from your online chats.
Here are some other key things to remember when meeting your online date face-to-face:
1. Plan it. Say it. Do it.
It’s your date. Agree on what you both want from it before you meet up. Don’t feel pressured to meet before you’re ready or for any longer than you’re comfortable with – a short first date is fine.
2. Meet in public. Stay in public.
The safest plan is to meet somewhere public and stay somewhere public. Make your own way there and back and don’t feel pressured to go home with your date. Make sure that if you go home on your own, that you get home safely. If you feel ready to move to a private environment, make sure your expectations match your date’s.
3. Let someone know where you are.
Always tell someone where you are and who you are with when going on a date, particularly a first date. Let them know when you’re back and safe afterwards as well.
4. Get to know the person, not the profile.
The way people interact online isn’t always the same face-to-face. Don’t be offended if your date is more guarded when meeting in person, or if things don’t progress as fast face-to-face.
5. Stay in control.
Being drunk clouds your judgement; moderate how much you consume and try not to leave your drink unattended.
6. Not going well? Make your excuses and leave.
Don’t feel bad about cutting a date short if you’re not keen. You don’t owe the other person anything, no matter how long you’ve been chatting or what’s been suggested.
7. If you’re raped or sexually assaulted on your date, help is available.
No matter what the circumstances, sexual activity against your will is a crime. Police and charities are here to help and support you.
If you've been abused as a result of online dating, or in any other way, our SASH site will help you with everything you need to know about what to do next, from preserving evidence to getting professional help.
The key here is to tell someone - it doesn't have to be the police; there are plenty of charities and NHS-run SARC centres that can help you get the physical and mental support you need at this time.
As well as physical harm, people who use online dating sites can also target individual's finances in what's known as 'romance fraud'.
In the video below, a victim of romance fraud tells her story of how she was conned out of more than £20,000 by a criminal posing as a US Army officer over an internet dating site.
Our officers have put together the following top tips to encourage people to protect themselves from becoming a victim of romance fraud:
- Always trust your instincts. If you think something feels wrong, it probably is;
- Never send money or give credit card or online account details to anyone you don’t know and trust;
- Communicate with people locally and not from overseas, although you should be aware that someone might tell you they are in the same country as you when they are not;