After Bumble meetup leads to Houston woman's alleged kidnapping, experts offer dating safety tips

Experts suggest taking time to get to know and message someone a bit before meeting in person. Pressure to meet before you feel ready should raise red flags, Web MD writes. — Image by Freepik

Dating apps provide an avenue to meet new people and ideally develop romantic relationships, which means eventually meeting someone who you've only known online. It requires trust and a leap of faith.

In a dangerous turn of events, when meeting a man she matched with on the dating app, Bumble, a woman in the Houston area was allegedly held captive and tortured by him. After she escaped, the man was arrested and she was treated for injuries in a hospital.

Dating apps, Bumble being one of many, are popular. Three out of 10 adults in the US have used dating sites or apps, according to the Pew Research Center. They were found to be more popular among younger adults.

Research found younger women are the most likely demographic to report troublesome interactions in online dating, including persistence from someone who has been rejected, unwelcome sexually explicit messages and offensive words.

While people can be reported or blocked on a dating app, they do not require background checks before joining. All that is needed to make dating profiles on some sites are a name, phone number and email.

In the age of online dating, experts share advice for how to protect yourself.

What to look out for while swiping

The first step to staying safe is knowing the app you're using, according to Maisha Colter of the advocacy group Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse, or AVDA. There is a wide variety of dating apps, some are free, some are paid, and different apps cater to different types of relationships. Being knowledgeable about that app you're using is a way to set yourself up for a positive experience.

Before people match and begin to message, they first get a look at someone's profile, typically including photos and personalised text. Who you match with can be the first line of defence to avoid anyone who may be unsafe or ill-willed.

Users should be cautious of profiles without pictures, or accounts with only one photo, according to Web MD.

Apps will let users link to their other social media pages on their profiles. It is advised to vet any linked social media accounts attached to a dating profile to ensure the person is not fake.

"They need to make sure to look at that person's social media platforms to see if they can learn more about the person apart from what they're putting on the dating website," Colter said. "... There is so much room for people to manipulate who they are."

People could use photos that are not their own, and lie in bios, creating the phenomena of catfishing. To attempt to catch these instances, Colter recommends users try using a reverse image search with pictures of their potential romantic interest.

Searching social media can be a way to check they are who they claim to be.

"Avoid connecting with suspicious profiles," Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said. "Try to do as much research on the individual as possible before meeting with them."

Colter noted if the potential date is local, the Harris County District Clerk's Office online records allow individuals to find any criminal history dealt with within the county.

"Obviously, if you see things like someone who is a violent offender of any sort, then that is something people should be cautious about," Colter said.

Herman said there are some people on dating apps looking to take advantage of those searching for companionship.

With whatever information available, researching any potential dates online before meeting is recommended.

Red flags

Experts suggest taking time to get to know and message someone a bit before meeting in person. Pressure to meet before you feel ready should raise red flags, Web MD writes.

People should be wary that adding potential dates on social media outside the dating app can also be a way for someone to see where you live, work and more.

Red flags to be on the lookout for, according to Web MD, are

– Asking for money

– Saying they live in the US but are traveling, living or working in another country

– Claiming they are recently widowed with kids

– Leaving the app and then coming back with a different name

– Avoiding questions

– Being exceptionally romantic early on

– Pressuring you to share personal information

Kayla Whaling, a representative from Match Group, the parent company of Tinder, Hinge, Plenty of Fish and Match, said it is recommended that users do not put anything if their profile which could give away too much and not give out any financial information.

"You're not putting stuff in your profile that could give away for example the gym where you work out, or what coffee place you frequent," she said.

Getting help

There are tools provided by dating apps to help weed out bad actors from the platforms.

Match Group uses artificial intelligence and moderation tools to search for people who have violated their terms, which attempt to uphold the safety of users, so individuals are not alone in the hunt for who is trustworthy.

Any suspicious profiles should be blocked or reported, experts recommend.

Whaling said reporting is anonymous. Whaling said the company consults with experts on safety and has devised a safety council which includes representatives from NO MORE; the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network; National Center for Missing Children; the National Sexual Violence Resource Center; and the Human Rights Campaign.

Whaling said even in communication off the app, Match Group can investigate reported inappropriate behavior and take action on their app profiles.

Bumble representatives were not immediately available for an interview Wednesday. The profile of the man accused of holding his date captive was blocked on the app, Zanna Crowley, Bumble's director of corporate communications, said Tuesday.

"We are dedicated to building a community where our members feel safe to make connections and build meaningful relationships," Crowley said. "Every member of our community is expected to adhere to our guidelines anytime they're using Bumble. Any profile that violates our terms or guidelines may result in getting blocked from the app for good."

Precautions when meeting with someone

After matching, messaging and any possible further communication there comes a time to take the relationship offline. This is when users are plunged into a leap of faith, meeting someone who they have gotten to know online and trusting profiles will align with who they are in the real world.

The first time you meet someone from an online dating site, it is recommended to be in a public space. Colter advises to use your own mode of transportation, and know how to leave the location if needed.

"Stay in a public forum until they feel comfortable with these individuals," Herman said.

Colter cautions people should be patient before advancing to a private meetup.

"Even if that means that you need to meet publicly three or four times," she said.

It is also suggested to let friends know where you are planning to meet with your date and any additional spots you go to.

"Always tell someone that you are going to be meeting with someone you met online," Colter said.

While on the date, if you begin to feel suspicious or uncomfortable, Web MD, advises to trust your gut and leave the situation.

Colter said to make safety a priority.

"For everyone, trusting your instincts is a good thing," she said, noting instincts alone though can't reliably source out a bad actor.

On the date it is also suggested by experts to avoid drinking to a point where you can no longer maintain a clear mind.

"I think your gut and your instinct is your first opportunity to protect yourself," Colter said. – Houston Chronicle/Tribune News Service

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