Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire                                 Online dating can be risky if you’re not careful.

Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire Online dating can be risky if you’re not careful.

High cybercrime and STDs? Be careful online dating this Valentine’s

Alaska can be a perilous place to find love online

More people than ever meet partners through online dating nowadays. But looking for love online does come with risks.

“It’s really easy to seem awesome online. It’s rarely exactly what it seems,” said Mandy Cole, the executive director of AWARE, in a phone interview. “We all try to show our best selves online.”

Alaska’s high rates of STDs and cybercrime, some of which is connected to confidence or romance frauds, can make dating online a dangerous place, especially in Alaska’s small and remote communities, Cole said. More than 1,603 Alaska residents were victims of some sort of cybercrime in 2018, according to the FBI’s most recent report.

Here’s some tips from experts on how to have a safe and happy Valentine’s Day (and other days) with online dating.

Stay in control and maintain backup options

“My No. 1 red flag is if you have to travel and you’re dependent on them for housing or travel,” Cole said.

“We’ve had people who thought they were coming up for the weekend and heading right back, and the person didn’t pay for a return ticket.,” Cole said.

Cole advised maintaining control of your housing situation, and not getting into a situation where one is dependent on anyone else for shelter or travel, especially if you’re traveling out of your home or local area.

“If you don’t know someone personally and you’re going to stay at their house, it’s really too big of an ask for someone’s first meet up,” Cole said. “They don’t know the place, they don’t have a way home, they don’t have resources.”

Cole also had advice good for anyone dating, online or not, within Juneau itself.

“For meetups, being able to move independently, being in public, somewhere where you feel safe is crucial. Do your research. Use Facebook. Use Courtview,” Cole said. “We’re a pretty outdoorsy bunch here. Sometimes it feels natural to meet up and go on a trail or go on a hike. But it does represent a safety risk.”

Cole talked about a number of meetups in more secluded locations where things didn’t go according to expectations for one party or other other, and the other was left to walk or hitchhike home from places out the road without cellphone coverage.

“Let a friend know where you are going and who you will be meeting,” said Juneau Police Department Public Safety Manager Erann Kalwara in an email. “Don’t get into a vehicle or go anywhere secluded while getting to know the person.”

Maintaining good online protocol

The growing prevalence of social media in everyone’s day-to-day life makes people easier to find online, Cole said, and leads to other problems, such as people hacking profiles on social media, or using modern electronic devices to stalk or harass someone. Cole recommended reducing risk by taking basic precautions against a predator using one’s electronics against them.

“Do not share personal information, contact information or addresses until you are comfortable with them,” Kalwara said. “Try to get to know as much as possible about them before meeting in person. Meet in a public place.”

Cole said that a summit she had attended talked about the rise in harassers and abusers being able to interfere with someone through their smart appliances, through things like networked lightbulbs and home devices.

Tips from TechSafety.org, an offshoot of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, suggest not logging onto accounts from devices not your own, not choosing easy to guess passwords or emails, and remembering that many phones have GPS tracking and functions such as silent dialing and auto-answer functions that can effectively turn them into listening bugs.

There’s brilliance in the basics

The biggest steps for keeping yourself safe this Valentine’s Day — and in any other online dating situation — are tried and true methods since before cellphones were so omnipresent in all of our lives.

“It also dovetails a little bit with the buddy system and watching your drinks downtown. Do the kind of things you’d do to be safe at a bar or an event,” Cole said. “Have an escape plan. From a bad date to a scary date, it’s good to have a way out of there.”

Cole also suggested keeping an awareness of one’s surroundings in a bar, and looking out for each other to keep someone from getting something dangerous slipped into their drink.

“If you see something shady, be sure you’re talking to the bartender, let the police know, let the person know what you saw,” Cole said.

Other suggestions from the Empire staff include not committing to something longer than a drink with someone you’ve never met, so you have a graceful exit that won’t escalate a situation from bad to scary.

We also suggest thinking about the context of what you’re proposing when you’re setting up dates — for guys, going hiking on a first meet might be perfectly natural and normal, but not everyone may share that opinion. Think about it from both sides.

Hopefully, none of this becomes relevant to anyone’s Valentine’s Day, or any other day.

But it’s always better to be careful than to end up in a bad situation.

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

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