Case Study: Online Dating, Scams, and Why Privacy is Not a Reactive Issue

I know a guy. Let’s call him Ron because I’ve been reading a lot of Harry Potter lately. Ron swiped right on a dating app on a girl we’ll call Luna (because I haven’t finished the series yet so I don’t care about canon). He and Luna started talking. It soon moved to text, as most of these dating app conversations do. There was a lot of explicit flirting, and Luna even sent a few nudes (not at his request, she volunteered them). After a few weeks, the conversation died out and they stopped talking. Then, the other day, Ron got a call from Luna’s dad who furiously informed Ron that Ron had been sexting an underage girl. Floored, Ron checked his text messages and noticed one particularly long message that he had skimmed over before, but upon closer inspection he noticed that she had made a mention about her upcoming 17th birthday. Cue the panic.

Why Am I Telling You This?

It was Ron’s fault for not reading the text, right? Yeah, probably. But here’s the thing: we all make mistakes. Ron wasn’t being a creep. He was tired and distracted when she sent the original text and he didn’t notice it. Tell me about how you’ve never overlooked an important detail, missed an important email, or made a mistake. It happens to the best of us. Mistakes get made. And furthermore, we operate as a society on a basis of trust. Ron assumed that since Luna was on the dating app she was over 18. He can’t go around demanding everyone send him a copy of their ID and birth certificate. We have to place trust in people. He made an honest mistake. This case is a case study in why we need to be proactive about our privacy.

How Did it End?

Ron called me, panicked, knowing that I know a lot about privacy. As I began to investigate, cracks began to appear in the story. They’re not relevant, so I won’t bother sharing them, but I ended up reaching out to a close friend of mine who currently works in law enforcement at a relatively high level. Without even hesitating, my friend assured me that it was definitely a scam and that Ron should just block the number.

So How Should Ron Have Been Proactive?

For starters, use a Voice-over-IP number. I’m a big fan of MySudo, but there’s lots of other options out there, even Google Voice if you’re strapped for cash. I’m anti-Google for privacy reasons but I’d recommend a Google Voice number over your actual SIM card number any day. You should be compartmentalizing your life: you should have a VoIP number for work, another one for interacting with strangers (such as dating or selling stuff online), maybe even one for banking. The idea is to compartmentalize your life. Phone numbers are basically social security numbers these days. If I give my work a phone number that I only use for professional purposes, they can search that number but they’ll only find my professional life: my LinkedIn, my website, maybe a few other subscriptions related to my professional self. If I have a separate number for dating and I find out after a few dates that the person is a little mentally unstable, it becomes that much harder for them to stalk me when I cut it off. It also gives me the freedom to change the number without upending my entire life. I can change my dating number without my boss ever even knowing.

The second proactive step would’ve been for Ron to use a fake name. Ron used his real name on this app, and even though most apps only use a first name that’s still risky, especially combined with his real phone number. If I use a fake name and a fake phone number on Tinder, your odds of finding me get astronomically small without some advanced techniques. Remember: we’re not talking about hiding state secrets from the NSA, we’re talking about hiding from scammers, blackmailers, stalkers, and similar threats.

A final step I would suggest is to take unique pictures. We all know that a professional site should feature a clear, well-lit head shot. Your dating profile probably doesn’t need to be so exact. I’m not saying you should use a fake picture, that’s asking for an awkward meetup. And of course there’s something to be said for actually getting a good look at the person you’re considering meeting up with, whether it’s for a one-night stand or a potential lifetime together. Personal opinion but I think physical attraction does matter in any intimate relationship, though the exact amount and definition of “attractive” varies from person to person and situation to situation. The point is, maybe don’t use the same picture you use on LinkedIn, because a reverse Google Image search will find that in a heartbeat and now the person you’re trying to escape has your real name, your place of work, and more. Also consider what’s in the pictures. Can I get a good look at your apartment? Any identifying landmarks? (A group shot with friends at a popular bar might be an exception here.) Can I see any work logos, addresses, mail, or sensitive information? Google claims they don’t use facial recognition in their reverse image search, but even if they don’t companies like Clearview do. The idea is to make your dating pictures different enough from your professional ones that they can’t be super-easily linked with an image search by any random person.

By the time Ron called me, it was too late. If it had been a real situation and not a scam, it would not have been good. My law enforcement friend told me that in his experience, in this situation a lawyer wouldn’t even bother taking the case cause there’s so little evidence of criminal intent, it wouldn't be worth the trouble. But what’s to stop the dad from blasting Ron on Facebook? After all, he has Ron’s real name and number. And there’s nothing the internet loves more than to shame someone virally without hearing their side of the story or getting the facts right. And let’s be real: even hardened murderers will shank a pedophile in prison. This story had all the right bits to be a viral social media post. At that point, it’s too late. Even if he moved and changed his number, an employer doing a public background check (aka a Google search) would likely still find this story. This could’ve ruined Ron’s life. Don’t wait until crap hits the fan to decide that you need privacy cause then it’s too late. Take steps now to avoid a crisis later.

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