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He showed up at my house after I ‘met’ him on a dating app. I was freaked out
By Steven Petrow
Last fall I did some chatting on a dating app with a guy I hoped to meet. He had a job, he had an adorable pooch—and he was friends with people I knew in the flesh. So I gave him my cell number and asked him to call me about 10 p.m. that night. “What could go wrong?” I asked myself.
Here’s what: Just after 10 he texted that he was at a restaurant around the corner—and he pulled into my driveway two minutes later. “How did you know where I live?” I asked. “That was easy – you gave me your phone number,” he said nonchalantly as I told him to leave, which (fortunately) he did. But the episode freaked me out.
More than 15% of all American adults have used a mobile dating app or site, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center study—nearly 40 million people—and one recent study found that at least half of them lie about themselves in their profiles (other research puts that percentage even higher). Many of those lies are mild, like under-reporting weight or over-reporting wealth, but some are full-on “catfishers” – which according to Urban Dictionary are “Internet predators that fabricate online identities … to trick people into emotional/romantic relationships.”
When I started dating again for the first time in 13 years, I realized I needed a strategy for uncovering the truth about romantic candidates, especially since the apps I was using—OKCupid, Tinder, and MeetMindful—did not verify users. My new approach: After a volley of chats on an app, I would ask prospective dates to text me. That way I would have their cell number, which I know from my previous reporting can be used to find out just about anything about you.
Eric Silverberg, CEO of Scruff, a dating app for gay men, didn’t think my plan was too smart.
“If you switch [from the app] to text messaging, there’s no community support to protect you and it’s going to be much harder for you to get help if there’s ever some kind of issue.” He reminded me “to be thoughtful and cautious about who you share your number with.”
Mark Brooks, editor of OnlinePersonalsWatch.com, a dating news and commentary site, also cautioned me: “Full verification is not possible outside of actual real world matchmakers who often use background checks.”
Brooks added: “Beware of jumping to a third-party form of communication. Scammers lure people off dating sites/apps, and then scam. It’s then beyond the jurisdiction of the app. Worse, it’s beyond the tools that dating apps use to monitor abusive behaviors, for instance, device ID tools and communications monitoring A.I.”
But I didn’t know any of that so I bought a $5-a-month premium subscription to WhitePages, a “people search” service. After I’d get a guy’s phone number, I’d run it through the “reverse lookup” feature and voilà! I had his full name, home address, real age, and more. With that data I’d turn to Google, where among other things I found a photo of one guy who had claimed to be single wearing a wedding band. Heartbreak averted.
“Just about anyone is going to Google your name before they meet you these days,” explained Rich Matta, CEO of ReputationDefender, a service that promises to cleanse your online presence. Then they can “easily triangulate other sensitive information,” he added.
Every once in a while, I found no information at all about a particular number. That was puzzling until I reached out to Thomas Martin, president of Martin Investigative Services, who explained: “Could be a number of factors. The most common is a burner phone, or they went to great lengths not to have their number in anyone’s system.” (Burner phones are generally used for one reason, such as a drug deal or clandestine relationship, then dumped.) When I couldn’t confirm someone’s identity, I backed away.
I soon learned that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. My texting scheme meant I had their number – but they had mine too. One fellow got upset when I didn’t want to see him again and Googled me. Angry, he deluged me with personal information he’d discovered. He started driving by my new house and taking photos. When I went to the police about filing an order of protection, I learned he’d made threats to others. The officer told me to keep copies of his disturbing emails, block him on social media, and tell him firmly to leave me alone. Check. Check. Check.
I didn’t want to be tracked down again, so I got a Google Voice number, which rings on my cell phone. With the Google Voice app, I can send and receive texts, listen to voicemails, and block numbers. I now give out that number instead of my real cell. Of course, someone who looks up my Google Voice number and finds nothing will probably think I have a burner phone – or that I’m catfishing them. Oh well. Life is far from perfect.
There’s no reason to give out a phone number before meeting. Use the app to pick a time and place to meet. Remember conventional wisdom: Meet in a public place, let a friend know ahead where you’ll be, and plan to check in after.
Use dating sites that require proof of identity to establish an account. Online dating expert Mark Brooks recommends Match.com and Meetic (in Europe) because they use their tech tools that help them stave off scammers. Zoosk and Badoo verify users’ identities. Or seek out people who have linked to their social media accounts from their dating profiles. “These are not foolproof,” says Brooks, “but they are another line of defense.”
Look out for scam dating sites, says Scruff’s Silverberg. “If the domain redirects to different domain name, that’s a huge red flag.” He suggests that we pay attention to an app’s reviews in the Apple store. The most successful dating apps will have thousands of reviews.
Don’t be in a rush to friend someone on Facebook, which gives them access to a lot more personal information about you, your family, and your work.
Opt out of people search sites, recommends ReputationDefender’s Matta. You can contact them directly or use a third-party service like his. “This doesn’t remove every possible trace of your information on the Internet, but it certainly makes you much harder to find.”
But the last word goes to Mr. Brooks: “Sometimes common sense is the least common of the senses when people are in a state of attraction. People let their guard down a little too early.” That would never happen to me. Oops, it already has.