The Internet age has connected people like never before - with technology such as email, instant messaging and social media enabling you to meet new people online with relative ease. But often, people decide to take their online communication to the next level: meeting in person.
Beware of predators
While this can be a positive move in developing a face to face relationship, sometimes things can go very wrong. There have been many cases where people have met online acquaintances who they trusted and then ended up being robbed, abducted, raped or even killed (a phenomenon dubbed "Internet homicide").
Dangerous predators have been around for ages, but in today's times, their jobs have been made easier by the anonymity and multiple attack routes provided by the Internet.
Predators often make first contact with their victims via chat rooms, discussion boards, social media and dating websites. They disguise themselves by using fake names and profile pictures, and sometimes even set up elaborate profiles to make their assumed identities seem authentic.
Once contact is established, they get to know the person - often showing enthusiasm for the person's interests, sympathising with problems, showering them with kindness and affection, and generally trying to earn the person's trust. In the case of sexual predators, the predator tries to ease the person's inhibitions by gradually introducing sexual content into their online interactions.
Once the intended victim is comfortable enough with the predator, one or both parties may suggest a meeting. The first meeting may end up without incident - with the predator taking a gradual approach - allowing numerous meetings to occur before finding the perfect opportunity to strike.
Anyone can be a target
Most often, children, teenagers and women are the targets of predators - but that doesn't mean that men are immune from being targeted. While such incidents commonly occur when people think they're meeting online friends or potential romantic partners, the risk applies much more broadly. For example, a Cape Town man selling his car online was recently murdered when going to meet the prospective buyer.
In essence, whenever you're meeting someone you don't know, there's a chance that you could be the target of a predator.
While such incidents are frightening, it doesn't mean you should refuse to ever meet an online acquaintance. However, it's essential to take very strong precautions. There are no standard rules for staying safe, but some important guidelines are:
- Be paranoid: Be aware that anyone you interact with online could be a predator in disguise. Don't ever take a person's perceived identity or discussions at face value.
- Verify identity and information: If possible, try to verify the person's identity in some way - for example by calling the company where they say they work or running a background check with the police. Use the information they gave you about themselves to check whether they really are who they say they are.
- Retain your privacy: While communicating online, don't give away too much personal information - such as your home or work address, your daily schedule, financial information or other information that could put you at risk. Also make it clear to your friends that they are not to give out such information either.
- Use alternate contact methods: Don't give out your primary email address or phone numbers. Set up alternatives for all the means you use to communicate with online acquaintances - such as an alternate email address, Skype account and cellphone sim card.
- Report unwelcome behaviour: If the person becomes abusive or sexually inappropriate with you online, cut off communication and report them to the police and other relevant authorities - such as the website you're interacting with them on. This can save you and other people who the predator may have been planning to strike.
- Meet safely: When deciding to meet in person:
- Never let the person fetch you from home or work.
- Meet in public places only. Make it a place of your choosing, and somewhere you don't normally go - because if things go wrong, you wouldn't want them finding you there in future.
- Try to have one or more strong and trusted friends with you, if possible, or at least make safety arrangements like letting someone know where you're going, who you're going to meet and what to do if they don't hear from you in a certain period of time.
- During the meeting, avoid going to any secluded area where there's no one to see or help you if things go wrong.
- Take things at your own pace. Never be pressured to do anything you're uncomfortable with - no matter what the person says.
- From the start of the meeting, lay down your rules - and don't be afraid to end the meeting if they violate your rules. Try to have your own transport nearby so that you can leave quickly if need be.