Friday, April 5, 2013

Top 5 tips for staying safe in online relationships

The internet has made this a very small world, indeed. Thanks to social media, we can make friends, business connections, and even find love with someone on the opposite side of the world.

But even as the benefits are amplified, so are the risks. It is easy to find someone you are compatible with, but at the same time, easy for someone with ill intent to find you.

The online dating game is complicated enough as it is without these shady characters, who more often than not fall into one of the following two categories:

Catfish - Those who create fake online profiles to lure unsuspecting people into a fake relationship for no apparent personal gain. Sometimes they are cyberbullies, people known to the victim playing a cruel trick, and at other times they're just trolls, people with nothing better to do than string along an innocent person for what they believe to be the fun of it. Sometimes they do it just to be able to tell their friends about their "internet girlfriend/boyfriend" or for sexual gratification. The name comes from the 2010 film Catfish, which was a documentary of one such fake online relationship.

Scammers  - These people will enter into online relationships, under real or fake profiles, with personal gain at the basis instead of love. They will often prey on certain subgroups or subcultures who may be more vulnerable to their advances. The gains they hope to get could be anything from gifts to money to plane tickets to visas, with some scammers going so far as to marry their victims for residency in a foreign country then leaving them once that residency is secure, or to end up getting them involved in drug trafficking schemes.

Much has been said about safe online dating, and I encourage you to read the linked posts at the bottom of this entry for more information on the topic, but here are my top five tips for avoiding catfish and scammers:

1. Know Thyself. Step away from the computer for a moment and go look in the mirror. Think about where you are in your life right now. Have you just exited a relationship? Had a string of relationships go bad? How's your self-esteem? Those horrible messages society tells you about what a woman/man "should be" - are you letting them affect you? Is that go get 'em attitude really from the heart, or is it bravado? Be honest with yourself; no one is listening but you. 

This is not to say that if you are in a delicate position, that you should not be looking for love; just that if you are not in a good place emotionally, you may be much more vulnerable to scammers and catfish, and you need to be sure to protect yourself even more than usual during this time. Be choosy; you deserve something good in your life. Don't just fall for the first guy who tells you you're beautiful or the first woman who shows an interest because they like you

Sometimes it does mean to step away from the dating scene for a while and get back in touch with yourself and your own wants and needs. If this is the case, don't resist it. If you need therapy to work through some tough times in your past, go get the help you need. But if you are ready to move on and put yourself out there, tread lightly and carefully at first. 

2. Heart Must Listen To Head. One of the most important things you can do to protect yourself is to make sure that what you are hearing from your online love interest is consistent. Sometimes it's easy to make excuses for people when their stories don't add up. Sometimes they are quick to make those excuses themselves. But if something doesn't make sense, find out why. Don't just ignore it. If he uses multiple names, or if she tells you she lives in one city but all her Instagram pictures are geotagged to another location, that could be a red flag. If he's asked you to go on the webcam but says he doesn't have one, or if she won't send a picture of herself when she's asked for yours, that's an asymmetrical relationship and there is definitely something wrong there. 

If you get a gut feeling that something doesn't add up, it's quite likely that it doesn't. Also be aware of inconsistencies between what someone says and what they do. He's very religious, but he tells you that you don't have to convert to his faith when you marry even as he posts videos of people who converted from your faith to his on his Facebook wall? She says she doesn't care if you don't have a six-pack but retweets photos of scantily clad gym rats? He says you look sexy in that halter top but agrees with posts where his friends say "women should dress decently"? Inconsistency between someone's words and their actions is a major red flag.

3. Culture Is Not An Excuse. Yes, cultural differences exist. No, they are not an excuse for you to be disrespected. If you are in a real relationship, you will discuss the things that make you feel slighted and if the other person cares, they will do what they can to make sure that those things do not happen. If you feel disrespected when someone does not come online at a predetermined time, and she doesn't even try to come online at that time, that's not fair to you. (It goes both ways; if you make disparaging remarks about their family due to their hesitation to accept your relationship and that hurts his feelings, stop doing it.)

This applies to gender relations too. Do not allow anyone to treat you as a second-class citizen or subject you to behaviors that are physically or emotionally abusive because of preconceived notions about "the way it is done in his culture." All over the globe, women are fighting battles within their own cultural contexts for rights and respect. Do not rationalize away behavior that at first glance seems not okay to you as something you have to "compromise on" because "that is just the way it is over there." Chauvinism and abuse are traits and behaviors of the individual; you cannot paint an entire culture with a broad brush in this matter. 

That said, if you are in an intercultural online relationship, you need to learn more about the culture of the person you're in a relationship with, and they should learn about your culture as well. There are issues that intercultural couples will face, but you need to work through those together, with mutual love and respect. If they want you to know everything about their culture - or you go down that path willingly - but they show no desire or put forth no effort to learn about yours, again, you're in an asymmetrical relationship, which may be the sign of a catfish or a scammer. Learning some of their language is also a good idea. I have witnessed a situation where an ostensibly peace-loving person was matched up with someone who subscribed to hate groups publicly online - but she didn't know that, because she couldn't understand what the groups' names meant. (And if you are in an online relationship and you have not stalked their Facebook profile, ask yourself why you haven't done that, and then go do it right away.)

4. You Can't Hurry Love. Relationships take time to build. You cannot fall in love at first text. Be cautious at first and open up much later, after trust has been built. Anyone who truly loves you should respect your boundaries (and if you love yourself, you'll have boundaries; if you have questions, please refer to #1 in this list). Similarly, anyone who says to you "I saw your profile picture and I fell in love" is not using correct terminology. They may have fallen in lust, or they may have gotten interested and wanted to get to know you better, but love's not there yet. 

Don't rush into something because you're afraid this could be your very last chance (likely, it's not) or because no one's ever shown you that kind of attention (attention and love are not the same thing) or because no one that beautiful will ever write to you again (if it seems too good to be true, it often is.) And if they are telling you any of those things, block them and run for the hills. 

There are people out there who believe in "soul mates" or "twin flames" and will drop anything and everything the moment that they think they have found that other, missing half. This doesn't make sense. If it is really true that this person is your soul mate, then why not wait? If they really are your soul mate, they'll understand that you want to take things slowly. If you're talking about someone you're linked to for eternity, six months or a year of getting to know each other isn't even a drop of water in that great ocean of time. You don't have to rush anything. 

Others do not believe in soul mates, but instead believe that there are people we are compatible with, but none of us is a half person waiting for our other half. They believe that relationships are two whole people who, together, are greater than the sum of their parts. In this case as well, growing trust over time is important and necessary. You don't want to make any major decisions based on a superficial understanding of your compatibility and only after knowing them realize that you just didn't know them well enough.

5. Would You Tolerate This In Person? They always say they'll come online but they never do. They promise to meet up when you visit their city, but when you go, they give excuses. The only thing they can talk about is how sexy you are. They don't ever want to talk about politics or basketball or social justice or the Kardashians or whatever it is that floats your boat. They don't like it when you ask them personal questions. They ask you for money just after you meet them. They ask you to do things on webcam you're not okay with. Your relationship seems never to progress beyond a superficial level.

Are these things you would tolerate in an in-person, bricks-and-mortar, meatspace relationship? 

Online relationships are often more difficult than in-person ones because you lose so much communicative ability. Pictures can be Photoshopped. You can't respond to someone's facial expression or body language using Facebook chat. Even on the phone, where at least you have tone of voice, you can't divine the environment, and even video chat only gives you one angle - and some say they may have been involved in fraudulent video chats as well! There is so much you cannot be sure of, so anything you could not tolerate in an in-person relationship must not be given a pass in an online one. 

Of course, this is just scratching the surface. Staying safe online takes common sense, a healthy dose of self-respect and respect for others, and being aware of the ways in which you are vulnerable and you can get taken advantage of, so that you don't. Here are some other useful links on the subject:

{Thanks to Maria S. and American Punjaban PI for their valuable advice in the creation of this entry.}


  1. Woohoo! Honorable Mention! :P

    You're absolutely right. No matter who you enter into a relationship with, you must not lose yourself. If someone needs you to change yourself for their happiness then they simply do not love you. Don't try to make yourself believe they do. You're not perfect, you're not supposed to be. Your partner doesn't have to love all of your flaws but they should be willing to work with you on compromising and finding a resolution so you can be together despite the things they don't like. If that means one of you leaves the room when the other throws a tantrum then so be it.

    It's also very important to be realistic about what you can and cannot live with. If you cannot stand to hear someone chew and your partner chews with their mouth open then it just may be best to part ways. You can be good friends. Unless that's the one thing you compromise on - maybe by eating at different times.

    Either way, you never should try to force yourself to ignore any type of behavior that concerns/bothers you. That's a loss of communication and you can't have a healthy relationship if you don't talk about the good and the bad.

  2. Loved it! So pertinent and true. I plan to share this :-)


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