How Seniors Can Stay Safe While Dating Online

Starting to date again as a mature adult is a pretty intimidating prospect.  High school was a long time ago, and diners and drive-in movies have long since given way to dating apps.  You may feel out of touch and unprepared to deal with this new dating environment, but you’re not as alone as you think.

Seniors now account for a large percentage of America’s singles, and are increasingly active in online dating.  Once you’ve gotten accustomed to the idea and learned to navigate a few dating sites, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how simple the process can be.  Unfortunately, there are also a few things you’ll need to know in order to date safely. Otherwise you could leave yourself vulnerable to fraud, identity theft or even outright violence or abuse.

Preparing Yourself to Date Online

Most online dating sites are pretty easy to use, especially if they’re focused on mature adults.  If you already use a smartphone or a computer (or both), you probably already have the skills you’ll need to date online (they’re pretty minimal).  If you’re completely tech-averse, you might need to sign up for a class at your local library or ask a grandkid to help get you up to speed.

The next step is to do some “big picture” research on online dating.  This article addresses ways to protect yourself online, but you’ll also want to look at articles about online dating etiquette and the social do’s and don’ts — the AARP dating site is a good source for those — as well as senior-oriented reviews of the major dating sites.  The websites of reputable senior-oriented publications are another good resource.

You can also approach friends and family who have been online dating for a while, to see which sites they’ve had good results with.

Senior Match and Other Dating Sites

Every dating site has its own personality. The goal at Tinder and AdultFriendFinder is a blunt “let’s get naked,” while sites targeting churchgoers are more likely to focus on either marriage or platonic companionship.  Mainstream sites accommodate most choices along that spectrum.

Senior-centric sites like SeniorMatch and SilverSingles provide a curated pool of age-appropriate candidates, with a goal of providing the best likelihood of a suitable match. The largest sites, like Match.com and eHarmony, take a different tack and give you the broadest possible pool of potential matches, to choose from. There are also free sites like OKCupid and Plenty of Fish, if you have budget constraints and don’t want to spend money  for a number of sites at first.

It’s best to be active on no more than two or three sites at a time; otherwise it can be too much to handle.

Choosing Sites Wisely

Even paid sites often offer free trials, or a limited-use free account with the option of upgrading to a paid account with more features.  It’s a good way to dip a toe in the water and get a feel for how each site works.

As a rule, paid sites offer better security than free sites.  They have the resources to store your data more securely — though breaches can still happen — and provide for plenty of secure communications options on-site.  Many also vet their profiles carefully, screening out many potential scammers and fraud artists before you ever see them.

Online Dating Safety

Once you’ve chosen a site, it’s time to get out there and mingle.  Here are a few “best practices” you should keep in mind.

  • Don’t go off-site.  There are lots of ways to communicate on-site with potential partners, so politely avoid requests to communicate through private emails, texts or phone calls.  That’s the digital equivalent of agreeing to meet a first-time date on a lonely back road instead of in a well-lighted public space.  It’s just a bad idea.
  • Don’t disclose too much.  Be very wary of giving away your real-world location, which can leave you vulnerable to stalkers and scammers alike.  Even idle chit chat about favorite neighborhood hangouts can reveal too much until you know a person well.  Oversharing can also leave you vulnerable to identity theft and fraud.
  • Don’t talk about finances.  Any show of affluence can potentially make you a target.  Even if your circumstances are currently comfortable, making an occasional mention of “still pinching my pennies”  or something along those lines is a sensible precaution.  You don’t have to be genuinely affluent to appeal to the ill-intentioned.
  • Video chat is your friend.  Before meeting anyone in person, try to video-chat with them on the dating site at least a few times.  It’s much harder to play a role on camera than through the written word, and it will give you a better feel for the character of the person you’re speaking with.  Make sure there’s nothing identifiable within camera range — no family photos, diplomas or mementos — before you begin.

If you progress to an actual real-world date — which is the goal, after all — take the usual common-sense precautions.  Make sure someone knows where you’ll be and who you’ll be with.  Meet in a public place, and make sure your phone is fully charged.  Check in with someone as soon as you’re done.  Taking a selfie with your date and sending it to a friend or posting it on social media is an especially good form of insurance.

After You’ve Connected

The most difficult moment comes when you make a connection with somebody who might be the partner you’re looking for.  At this point, just when you’re caught up in the rush of emotions caused by a new romance, you’re at your most vulnerable.  However wrong it feels, this is exactly the time you need to take a step back and scrutinize your potential partner carefully.

It’s important to protect yourself.  Scammers are good at appearing to be the trustworthy, caring, charming person you want them to be, for exactly the same reason carpenters are good with saws and hammers: It’s how they make their money.

A “Red Flags” Checklist

Human nature doesn’t change much, so scammers tend to rely on the same handful of well-proven techniques in order to carry on their dirty work.  Here are a few of the biggest red flags to watch for, and ways to do due diligence on Prince (or Princess) Charming:

  • They’re telling you things you can prove to be false.  If a person proves not to be who they claim, that’s arguably the biggest red flag of all.  When you find yourself thinking of someone as serious partner material, go back through your conversations (and their profile) in search of verifiable information.  Then turn to tools like Spokeo’s reverse phone number and email lookup, to see whether those coincide with the identity you’ve been given.  Do you know this person’s Twitter handle?  Do they claim to own a house in Hoboken?  You can find that.  If your pretty Spokane divorcee turns out to be a man in Muncie, or if your active-duty ranger at Fort Bragg is posting from Michigan, it’s time to move on.
  • They want something.  This may be the biggest red flag.  Flowers on a date is one thing, dipping deeply into your bank account is quite another.  The sad truth is that however plausible and heartbreaking the story, however urgent the circumstances, the person who asks you to send money (or gift cards, or expensive gifts) is scamming you.  
  • Cast a critical eye over their profile photos.  Do some of those profile pictures look oddly professional?  Use an image lookup service, like Google Images (basically Google search for pictures) to see if they’re legit.  Scammers often use photos from online ads or professional stock-image libraries as their profile photos.  You may also find the same photos being used on multiple sites, with multiple names and profiles.  That’s a definite warning sign.
  • In-person meetings never quite seem to happen.  There’s always a perfectly plausible last-minute complication or excuse, but somehow you never quite get the opportunity to meet face-to-face.  It’s very often an indication someone is a player, in either the scammer sense or the romantic sense.  Either way, it’s a bad sign.
  • They make you feel insecure or inadequate.  It’s natural to want to please when you’re in a new relationship, but sometimes that feels harder than it should be.  Beneath the charm, there may sometimes be a clear impression that you’re letting the other person down, or maybe that you just aren’t quite good enough or attractive enough.  That’s controlling, manipulative behavior.  Scammers use it to guilt you into doing things for them, and many non scammers do it just because they’re controlling and manipulative.  Either way, it makes for a bad relationship.
  • They’re military or ex-military.  Scammers often claim to be military or ex-military, because it’s convenient.  There’s a built-in excuse to be called away at a crucial moment or to need money sent.  There are plenty of legitimate service members online seeking romance, but you’ll need to be extra-careful about vetting them (no pun intended).
  • They’re always in ill health.  Chronic illness is another tricky one, because as we get older a lot of potential partners will have perfectly legitimate illnesses.  The illness itself isn’t a danger sign, it’s the use of the illness to duck in-person meetings or to request financial help that should give you pause.

So Now What?

If all goes well, you’ll find nothing wrong with your potential partner, and the relationship will develop over time like any other.  The end result may be happiness or heartbreak, but either way it occurs naturally.  That’s just life.

On the other hand, you may feel that there are enough red flags to justify breaking off the relationship, either before or after that first date or two.  Be polite but firm, and then either block that person or simply stop responding to their messages.  This is why you don’t reveal your actual location and personal email or social media in the early days: It makes you harder to find, if your suitor won’t take no for an answer.

In a worst-case scenario, you may find that your new flame is unquestionably a scammer and fraud artist, perhaps with a trail of victims spanning decades and much of the country.

If You Uncover a Scammer

If you’re in that unfortunate position, take steps to protect yourself.  Change the passwords on all of your accounts, scrutinize your statements closely and ask your bank and credit card providers to monitor your accounts closely.  It’s a good idea to also pull your credit report, to see if anything untoward is going on.  If you can afford to pay a service to monitor your credit for a year or two, that’s a wise precaution.

Report your findings to the dating site, as well as any other sites your scammer operates on.  Reputable sites will want to know.  If you’ve been defrauded of any actual money or property, report it to local law enforcement and the FBI’s fraud center along with the evidence you’ve gathered in your investigations.

Get Back on Your Feet

The most important thing you can do if you’ve been taken in by a charming fraud artist is very simple: Be gentle on yourself.  It didn’t happen because you were especially foolish or gullible, it happened because a greedy and unprincipled person set out deliberately to take advantage of you.

Most of the people you’ll meet on a reputable dating site are just like you, excited and uncertain and flawed and optimistic.  Scammers are a reality, but it would be unfortunate if you let your bad experience deter you from your goal of meeting someone worthwhile.  Even the best gold mines contain a lot more rock than gold, but the gold is there if you’re willing to dig.

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