How to Be Safe When Meeting an Online Friend in Person

meeting an online friendMany college students who wish to avoid the bar scene and get into a committed relationship are turning to online dating as their solution. Meeting an online friend is becoming more common these days – like the pen pals of old – but it’s much easier to connect with someone online. This situation comes about not only through dating apps, but it often occurs when cyber relationships turn into real ones as a result of prolonged interactions within MMO games, which are basically chat rooms with game content.

If you’ve been chatting online with someone for months and your relationship has developed into a virtual dating scenario, keep in mind that your attraction is largely based on what you imagine each other to be. If you’re going to date someone online, be yourself. Don’t try to be someone who you are not. Nobody likes fake people. Being honest and open is a must. That’s the best way to avoid unpleasant surprises down the road.

If you feel like you’re ready to take the next step – that is, meeting your online friend in person – it often works out just fine. However, there are certain precautions you should take when meeting an online friend. The internet is a virtual playground for scam artists and those looking to take advantage of others, so you can’t be too trusting. How well do you really know them? For example, are you sure the other person is the age they say they are? How can you be sure they don’t have criminal motives?

There is always some risk when you get together face-to-face for the first time with someone you’ve met online. If you met on social media or on a dating app or while playing an online game, it’s important to safeguard yourself when meeting an online friend in person, regardless of whether you’re able to do so right in your hometown or you must travel to another state. Here’s how…

Talk before meeting.

Before you meet someone in person who you’ve met online, you want to make sure they are who they’ve said they are. The best way to go about this is to have a phone call or live video chat with them. If you’ve developed a friendship to the point where you want to get to know each other better, they shouldn’t have any problems doing this. If they refuse or make excuses, it could be a red flag that they aren’t being truthful about their age or gender.

It’s a good idea to use a video chat program such as Skype so you can not only hear them speak but also see what they look like. If the person can’t video chat with you, ask them to take a selfie holding a sign with particular words on it. This can assure you that they aren’t pulling photos off the internet, and that it’s a current photo of them and not one from ten years ago.

If you are under the age of 18, you should also have your parent contact their parent and introduce themselves. There is no reason to keep your relationship secret if it’s on the up-and-up. And remember that anything posted online can be traced, shared, and spread everywhere – and webcams can be recorded – so conduct yourself accordingly, and don’t act in any way that you wouldn’t want your grandma to see.

In general, you want to avoid telling any online friend too much about yourself at first, just in case they aren’t who they claim to be. Treat them as a stranger and don’t give them access to your private information. Keep conversations focused on common outside interests, such as music or movies. Get to know them better before you start telling them your address, your birthday, and your life history.

Go slow and gradually find out more about each other. Ask lots of questions. Talk about anything and everything. Refer to conversations you had before. Be aware of any inconsistencies that show up in stories. If you’ve been video chatting with each other for some time and feel that you already know each other well, that’s great! But have you really checked them out thoroughly? See the next step before you decide to meet in person.

Do some background research.

Once you’ve started talking to someone regularly, it may be time to do a little online sleuthing before you continue pursuing the relationship. It’s normal to want to know who someone is, and to be reasonably sure they are who they claim to be. Throughout your various conversations, gather other pieces of information such as their home town, where they were born, how old they are, where they work or go to school.

Check their social media pages and look at their friends list. Notice how they interact with their friends or followers. You can usually tell by these interactions whether they actually know each other in person (faking a persona is possible; faking an entire group of friends isn’t plausible). If you have any friends in common, contact them and ask how they know the person and if they’ve ever met them in real life.

See if they have a Linkedin page that lists their employment history. Or maybe they have a personal blog or website that tells more about them. Look up their home address on Google Earth to see what kind of neighborhood it is. Does everything they told you make sense according to the information you’ve found? If your internet search turns up nothing, it could be a red flag. In that case you may want to hire a private investigator just to make sure you aren’t being deceived.

Verify their identity.

Before meeting an online friend, you may want to formally self-identify to each other. Fill out an Affidavit of Identity and have it notarized. Provide your full legal name, date of birth, and home address. Take it to the notary at your bank. Bring supporting documents such as your driver’s license, birth certificate, or passport, the more the better. You’ll be asked to swear that the information you’ve provided is true and correct. Have the affidavit witnessed, signed and sealed by the notary. This is a good way of proving who you are. Send it to your online friend, and have them send one to you. It’s a red flag when someone has a big problem with this, especially if they rip out the “what, don’t you trust me?” line. No, you’ve never met them; you’re not supposed to trust them. If they’re serious about the relationship, this is the least they can do.

Keep your first meeting brief.

First of all, never ask another person to lie for you so you can meet an online friend. If your meeting has to start with a lie it can’t possibly be good. Before you head out, set up your smartphone to share your location with your friends or family. Tell your parents (or another trusted adult) what you are up to, where you will be and when you will be back and don’t deviate from your plans without clearing it with them first. For your initial meet-up, find a neutral place where you can sit and talk for a half hour or so. This way, if you find you’re not interested in the person, you don’t have to spend too much time with them.

You may not want to meet too close to home if you’re worried about the person knowing where you live. But at the same time, you don’t want to meet someone for the first time in an unfamiliar part of town. Choose a public place that you’re familiar with, such as a restaurant or shopping mall, but not one that you frequent too often in case you don’t want to risk running into that person again.

Try to meet during the day, if possible. Choose a place that’s fairly busy at the time you’re planning to meet. Busy cafes for a quick coffee are great for this. If you’re both only available in the evening, an ice cream shop is always good. Just make sure it’s a place where you feel comfortable. Even if you “know” someone online, a stranger is still a stranger – you don’t want to go to their house and get into their car quite yet. Public places afford a level of safety and comfort for everyone.

Use caution if they try to invite you somewhere else. A predatory person will try to lure you to a more private or out-of-the-way location. And keep an eye on your personal belongings. If you have to excuse yourself at any point, such as to use the restroom, do not leave your purse, cell phone, or drink unattended with the person you’re meeting.

Bring a friend.

Always make sure that several people know exactly where you’re going and when. If you’re really nervous about meeting the person, take a friend along with you. Ideally, bring someone who knows the area, especially if you’re meeting the person further away from home or in an unfamiliar part of town.

There is no reason NOT to bring someone with you when first meeting an online friend, even someone you’re interested in romantically. If the person legitimately wants to meet you, they shouldn’t be put out that you want to bring a friend along, as it also shows them the kind of friends you have.

If you are under the age of 18, make sure you have a parent or other adult present when meeting a person you met online. (Even if they hang back and don’t actually appear to be with you.) Granted, this means your first meeting is not actually a “date,” but there will be plenty of time for that later on if you hit it off.

Have an escape plan.

Before meeting an online friend, have several options in mind that will enable you to get out of the situation quickly if anything happens. Arrange for a friend to check in on you during the meeting so you can let them know if things aren’t going well. Keep your phone on your person at all times, either with the ringer on or on vibrate so you won’t miss this text or call. Have a secret code word that you will tell your friend if you feel threatened and may need help.

Rely on your own transportation as much as possible. If things go south, you want to be able to physically get away from someone as fast as is reasonably possible. You can’t do that if you need a ride from them. If you have your own car, drive to the meeting place and park as close as you can. Have a couple of options if you don’t have your own car or are relying on public transportation. For example, a taxi, Uber, or Lyft. Don’t go anyplace where the person could isolate you from your way out.

Trust your instincts.

When you make friends with somebody, it can be tempting to shrug off comments or behaviors that normally would give you second thoughts. Even though things are going well and outwardly the person seems fine, you may have a nagging feeling that something isn’t quite right. Don’t ignore that feeling. Keep in mind that this person is a stranger, and avoid giving them the benefit of the doubt. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to the person, or something is bothering you, take it as a red flag. Maybe this person isn’t the best friend for you.

If you feel like you’re not safe or you just want to leave, do it – get out of there as quickly as possible, especially if you feel like your wellbeing is in jeopardy. Go to the restroom and call a nearby friend to help you. You also may be able to talk to someone who works at the place where you met. Explain the situation to them and they may be able to help you leave through a back door. As soon as you can, report any threatening or dangerous behavior to the local police as well as to the social media platform or dating app where you first connected. You also have the option of blocking them so that they cannot see your profile or contact you again.

Long distance friends.

What if your online friend lives far away? All of the above advice still applies, including the part about having a friend or relative accompany you. But it will cost more to visit each other, so you definitely want to be sure you’re serious about wanting to pursue a long distance relationship. If you must travel out of state in order to meet the person, your first meeting will probably be at the airport, which is as safe a place as any to meet and see if the two of you are compatible. Just beware of any bad vibes before leaving the airport with the person – remember what happened in Taken.

In general, the whole idea of meeting an online friend for the first time is scarier for females than males, simply because males are usually physically stronger and thus more of a potential threat. But either way, even though the flight required a substantial commitment of time and money, if you get all the way there and then decide that you don’t like the person, don’t feel obligated to stick around. Have an alternative plan in case things don’t work out, like taking a mini vacation on your own as long as you’re there.

Despite all the horror stories about online predators and human traffickers, not everyone is out to get you – but you need to be smart about who you let into your life, and what you’re getting yourself into. You can never be too cautious when it comes to your personal safety. Good luck and let us know how it goes. 😉

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