What can you do to stay safe(r) online?
Being security conscious is a part of my DNA. In college, I studied Criminal Justice and Psychology – thinking I’d be the next Clarice Starling or Dana Scully. I wanted to be a profiler, a forensic biologist, a hot shot police detective or a federal agent. Eventually I launched into the realm of international security which was…different…but still the same. I think part of my subconscious understood that, as a professional in the field of security, I would be better armed to face any dangers that might present themselves.
I wasn’t wrong.
I was listening to a true crime podcast yesterday, as I am often guilty of doing, and the story told reminded me of one of the fundamentals I’ve carried with me throughout my career…and life. The concept is 360 awareness. Some call it a 360 mindset. Others simply refer to it as situational awareness. Regardless of the nomenclature, at its heart, the theory is that you are tuned into what is happening around you – in every direction.
In summary, “Jez” a twenty-something who had just moved to the Denver area in 2013 and was trying to meet new people, created a profile on Plenty of Fish. She quickly started chatting with a handsome guy one afternoon and she agreed to meet up with him at a restaurant that evening. He told her, if she arrived before him to the restaurant to saddle up to the bar and order two shots of Fireball (thus the title of the episode – I’ll get into the acronym later if this post doesn’t go overlong). Jez arrives at the restaurant and I know you won’t be shocked to learn, her “date” had not yet arrived. After multiple excuses (via text) were received, it seemed Jez had been stood up.
Coincidentally (or not, as we will learn) another handsome gentleman notices Jez at the bar and begins to chat her up, finding out she’s been stood up and offering to buy her dinner. He is persistent but she declines. Eventually, she gets up to go to the restroom and asks if he’ll watch her stuff. It’s then that a waitress, who had been obsessively checking on Jez throughout the night, runs into the bathroom and says to Jez, “I don’t know why you think you’re here but whatever the case, that guy at the bar – he’s the real reason your here.” The waitress tells Jez that this guy has been in there before, he always orders Fireball and his companions (who he never arrives with) typically end up leaving with him and are more drunk than they should be off the alcohol they’d been served. Jez gathers her composure, goes back to the bar, and basically waits the guy out – repeatedly denying his requests to join him for dinner or leave to another location. He eventually gets irritated, leaves, and then Jez sits there for hours out of an abundance of caution before the bartender walks her to her car.
There is no resolution to this story. No one knows if this guy is/was a serial predator, a murderer, or part of a human trafficking scheme. What we do know is that, in all likelihood, Jez avoided what probably would have turned out to be a life-altering (if not life-ending) set of circumstances.
So, what can we learn from her experience? A whole whole lot to put it bluntly.
You know that feeling you get when you JUST miss getting into a car accident? For me, it’s like an intense tingly sensation. A burst of fear that’s sort of physically manifested throughout my body. My body just prickles all over and I get a little bit of a cold sweat. It’s the same thing that happens when I sense real fear in other circumstances – whether it’s narrowly avoiding falling down a flight of stairs or getting into the elevator or my car in the nick of time when I sense danger.
I can imagine that’s what Jez felt when the waitress approached her in the bathroom.
When we think about 360 awareness, we often think of viewing our world physically – it’s all about what is happening “around” us. But I’d like to take that concept a bit further. What is 360 awareness in a world where many people meet and begin to trust relationships from behind a computer screen or a smartphone? It’s a whole lot different, to put it simply.
This practiced paranoia when we’re out and about is still so very important but what about protecting ourselves from the online predators, the lurkers, the fraudsters and so on? Jez seemed to have a good head on her shoulders. She handled herself with poise, confidence, and was able to come out of this situation relatively unscathed. But what could she have done differently so that she didn’t put herself in that position in the first place? And if the person at the bar had been so inclined, what of her personal information was already compromised simply because she met him there? We don’t really know what she shared with him or how much he knows about her – or what he could have done with all of that information. It’s a spine chilling thought.
There are some answers or at least suggestions.
But first, let’s talk statistics (this one’s for you, my data-loving niece).
- Sexual assaults linked to online dating platforms have grown six-fold in the last five years. (Caveat: This statistic is from 2016 but I can imagine not much has gotten better.)
- 10% of sex offenders use online dating to meet people. (January 2020)
- 20% of new account registrations on these sites are fraudulent. (February 2020)
At the best, you’ll encounter a catfish or two (or maybe a dozen); at the worst, you’ll be telling some convicted felon how much you love Thai food.
So, what should you do? And if you’re not online dating, I’m sure you know someone who is…or might be. What advice could you offer?
- Go to the Googs! A simple search on a person’s name in Google will usually give you some sort of validation that this individual actually exists. You can also do an image search. I recently did this with someone who claimed to go to my alma mater and who approached me right here on LinkedIn. Innocuous at first and then they were asking if I was single. I shut them down quickly with an “I’m involved and only used LinkedIn professionally” but just two days ago, I confirmed the account was completely fabricated.
- Don’t give out your personal phone number and definitely not any other information about where you can be “found”. There are many options to help with this – Google Voice, Skype, etc. I know it’s inconvenient for some but is it so laborious that you’d jeopardize your safety?
- DO, however, have a real conversation with the person. Start with a phone call (using above methods) and then maybe try a Zoom call or something where you can put eyes on. If something feels off or they continually deny this request, yeah…it’s a no for me…and it should be a heck no for you!
- Don’t ever let them pick you up.
- Don’t ever take a drink that you haven’t seen poured.
- Tell someone you trust where you’re going and have wingman…wingwoman…whatever. Make sure there’s someone in close proximity to you so that you can get the heck out of dodge, if necessary. Phone location apps sometimes make me feel all twitchy but it’s a very good idea to share your location with one or two people in your life who you trust implicitly.
- For goodness sake, do not meet them at their residence or ANYWHERE that is not public. And while we’re at it, do not meet them at a central location to then get in the car with them to go somewhere else. This happens…a lot. Just don’t. Drive a little further, Uber…just do not get into someone’s car that you don’t know. I feel like I shouldn’t have to say this but I know sometimes good people make bad decisions in the moment so…I say again…no no no no no to the no!
There are a million more, I’m sure. The point is, 360 awareness does not start and stop when we’re walking to our car in a mall parking lot. It’s noticing the person you’ve gone to church with for 30 years holding on to your hand for just a few seconds too long when you give a handshake as your leaving Sunday service; it’s spotting the same car in your rear view mirror for the last 20 miles; it’s closing your blinds and drapes at night even though you live in a safe neighborhood; it’s all the things that we shouldn’t have to do…but we better. And it’s definitely protecting yourself and being proactive when you are engaging with people online.
I know technology has brought us together in a lot of ways and that’s a good thing but let’s not forget that there are bad people out there just waiting for an opportunity to take advantage. Be persistent when it comes to your security. If there’s anything you should overthink, it’s your safety. Have fun, meet people, fall in love, network – but please do it safely!
P.S. BWBRSA stands for “be weird be rude stay alive”. It’s a Crime Junkie anthem and I couldn’t agree more. It is not our job to make people feel validated – it’s our job to protect ourselves and each other and it’s ok to be rude if it means you get to the next day.
P.S.S. I shared this on my LinkedIn profile but am shamelessly posting it here as well because I think these are good reminders!