In the early days of the internet, it was common advice to never meet someone in person that you’d only met online. These days, it’s much more common—but you should still take a few precautions.
More often than not, if you’re meeting someone you’ve only ever talked to online for the first time, it falls into one of two categories. Either it’s a social call (like a date or a party), or a casual business deal (such as selling a laptop on Craigslist). In most cases, the tips here will cover both, but always be careful to take precautions for your specific scenario.
Vet Them Before You Offer to Meet
Traditional wisdom says that you should give out as little information about yourself as possible when meeting someone online. Ironically, your first goal when meeting someone else is to find out as much of that information they shouldn’t be sharing online as you can. You should always be careful sharing info online, but if you’re going to anyway, focus on finding safe places to contact people.
For starters, if you have the choice, try meeting people on sites that vet their users. In dating situations, sites like OKCupid have extensive profiles. These can be faked, but a convincing and thorough false profile can take a lot of work. Additionally, some services like Let’s Date allow users to connect their Facebook profile, which provides some extra information.
Don’t just let profiles speak for themselves, though. You can find out a lot about a person yourself just by searching online. You don’t have to track down every habit they have or ruin all the first-date questions. However, the “Will I survive this encounter with all my parts intact?” question should be settled before you step out the door.
For the non-dating crowd, playing it close to the vest is more important. Use disposable email addresses and phone numbers to keep your point of contacts private once your transaction is completed. You can also use Google Voice to easily screen numbers. If you’re already a GV user, this won’t help much, but if not, it’s easily one of the most versatile discrete phone numbers you can get.
Perhaps most importantly, talk on the phone first. Not everyone enjoys phone calls, but you should have at least one or two conversations that aren’t over text-based mediums. If the person you’re talking to says they’re a 20-year-old woman, but they’re really a 45-year-old man, that will be a lot harder to hide on a phone call.
Plan Your Entire Encounter
Once you’ve done your diligence in finding out who the person is and what concerns you should have, set up a meeting plan. Don’t just choose one well-lit, public location to meet at. Choose several. If it’s a date or a social gathering, you may want to leave your initial spot and go somewhere else. If you’re meeting someone to sell or trade something, they may run into trouble finding the place you agreed on. In both cases, knowing several other safe backup locations can help.
Before you head out, set up your smartphone to share your location with your friends or family. Apps like Moby can let those you trust see where you are at all times. Taking someone with you is better, particularly if you’re dealing with something like a Craigslist sale, but let’s be real. You’re not going to bring two friends on your first date with someone you met online. In that case, use the virtual buddy system to ensure someone has your back.
How you pay for the outing varies by situation. If you’re going on a date (or going out in general), carrying as little cash as possible can limit any losses if someone tries to steal from you. Credit cards can be canceled and in the event of theft, you can report charges as fraudulent.
However, if you’re buying something from an individual, chances are they want cash. In that case, only bring the amount you’re offering. If you want to give yourself some wiggle room for haggling, keep your extra money separate. Not only will it help prevent theft, but the seller will be more likely to work with you if they don’t see you rifling through a stack of Benjamins for that three fifty you’re going to pay them.
It’s also worth noting that Craigslist introduces some problems if you’re dealing with stuff you can’t sell in a public place. As we’ve discussed before, if you have to invite someone to your home, leave your front door open and meet the person in the parking lot if you’re in an apartment complex.
Have an Exit Strategy
The counterpart to planning ahead for your outing is planning how you’ll get out of it. For brief business meetups, the entire affair is fairly simple: exchange your goods and be on your way. For friendly or romantic encounters, it can get more complicated with changed venues and extended visits.
Don’t get in a vehicle with someone you don’t know you can trust. 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 possible, you should also set up a safe zone that your friends or family can meet you at nearby. You may not want to take your friends out on your date, but there’s no reason they can’t be having dinner at the restaurant across the street. If you need an out, they’re only a text message away.
While your plans will be much less involved while dealing with Craigslist buyers, there are still certain things you should avoid. Don’t stray from your meeting place. If you’re trading goods, there’s no reason to go anywhere. If you’re performing a service such as cleaning or babysitting, you may not be able to avoid going to someone’s home, but do a background check before you do.
Meeting people online can be dangerous, but it’s also a more common occurrence than it has been in the past. In this way, it’s not much different from driving a car. We all accept that there’s a risk that something could go wrong, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. Just put on your metaphorical seat belt and watch out for that one asshole doing 80 in a 35.