“It definitely made it easier to be going through it together. And a lot safer, I think,” Gilbert said.
The risks of meeting someone through a dating app can feel heightened when you’re traveling. Navigating language barriers, being away from established social networks and exploring unfamiliar territory can all leave travelers more exposed to scams and potentially dangerous encounters.
The U.S. Embassy in Bogotá, Colombia, recently warned travelers to stay cautious while using dating apps after eight suspicious deaths of U.S. citizens in Medellín late last year. A statement from the embassy said it had seen an increase in “incidents involving the use of online dating applications to lure victims, typically foreigners, for robbery by force or using sedatives to drug and rob individuals.” Early last year, the U.S. Embassy in Kingston, Jamaica, warned U.S. travelers of robberies facilitated by dating apps.
Why dating apps can be risky
With limited vetting, catfishing and other scams allow people to pretend they’re someone they’re not. Dating apps facilitate immediate interactions with a higher quantity of people than, say, a night at a bar, which can mean more opportunities to run into bad actors.
“We’ve found it’s just kind of open hunting grounds,” said Julie Valentine, a longtime forensic nurse, certified sexual assault nurse examiner and professor studying sexual and gender-based violence at the University of Utah.
A recent study she conducted compared dating app-facilitated sexual assault to cases of sexual assault committed by acquaintances, or what’s often referred to as date rape. The study found app-facilitated assaults had more frequent instances of violence and physical injuries, as well as higher rates of assault against vulnerable groups like people with self-reported mental illness and gay men.
Valentine and other experts agree it’s important to proceed cautiously with dating apps regardless of where they’re used.
“The reality is, any extra precautions you take abroad you should also be taking in the U.S.,” said Blaine Anderson, a professional dating coach.
Anderson emphasizes any stranger may be “a potentially risky person,” but she has also used dating apps in 24 different countries. Dating apps can still be a great way to meet people while traveling, especially as the limits between social life in-person and online become further blurred.
Many dating experts agree that the burden of safety should not fall largely on dating app users and at-risk daters. Valentine, for one, hesitated to “add to the list of safety guidelines,” saying that doing so can lead to victim-blaming.
These extra steps can be especially taxing on women, who often face more risk when using dating apps than their male counterparts.
Still, extra safety measures can help mitigate some dating risk.
“While it’s in no way a victim’s fault, there are some things you can do to keep yourself safe in the context of thinking about traveling, online dating abroad, social discovery, friend-finding, et cetera,” said Hannah Shimko, the CEO of the Online Dating and Discovery Association, a trade group that plays a role in establishing best practices for apps like Tinder and Hinge.
Is your date who they say they are?
Before meeting someone from the apps, Anderson recommended travelers try to verify a potential date’s identity. Do you know where they work? Where did they go to school? Are they Google-able? Do they have their Facebook linked to their profile?
“I’m not saying you need to stalk online everyone you meet,” she said. “These are just some common ways to make sure someone is who they say they are.”
Some apps also allow people to verify their profiles. While it’s a broad practice — some rely on one-time selfie verification, some require users to provide government IDs and others perform background checks for users in certain countries — it can be a helpful, if imperfect, resource for the traveling dater.
Match Group, the parent company of Hinge and Tinder, for example, now uses video prompts rather than static images to improve the accuracy of its photo verification services.
Share your location with family and friends
During the date, staying in contact with friends and loved ones is a good idea. When Gilbert would go on double dates in Prague and elsewhere while studying abroad, she had her roommate keeping her company. But the pair also shared their location with other friends as an extra precaution.
Experts also urged meeting only in very public locations, such as coffee shops in busy and well-populated locations. They discouraged hikes, less-crowded areas of town, and dates’ apartments or homes.
Guard your personal information
Anderson recommended women and other more vulnerable dating app users refrain from sharing too much of themselves in their profile, lest the information fall into the wrong hands.
Shimko also encouraged all users to keep key personal information to themselves: “Make sure you don’t put your license plate or number of your house, don’t put your hotel in an image,” she said.
It’s important to stay on top of local recommendations, like the U.S. Embassy messages in Colombia and Jamaica.
In these cases, apps may also send out safety warnings. Tinder, for example, “proactively sent users visiting Colombia an in-app message … encouraging them to prioritize their safety when meeting anyone — either on or off the app,” according to Kayla Whaling, a spokesperson for Match Group.
Grindr provided users in Colombia with a similar message. “During this time of increased violence, Grindr has leveraged its platform to launch in-app campaigns alerting users of security threats and reminding them of ways to help keep themselves safe both online and in-person,” spokesperson Sarah Bauer said.
Dating app users can also go over their chosen app’s safety guidelines as an added resource and report any potentially bad actors through each app’s reporting process.
While it’s not always possible to tell whether a date has harmful intentions, it’s important to continuously check how a situation feels. Valentine said that many of the people she sees in her clinic feel comfortable with their dates until they turn dangerous.
Anderson, the dating coach, said while cultural norms vary from country to country, travelers should value their personal safety over the fear of making a faux pas.
“While you are traveling, other cultures may have different subtleties or different expectations. Overall, what matters most is your comfort,” she said. “If someone is making you feel uncomfortable, even if you think it’s a cultural norm or expectation, you should get out of that situation. … You don’t have to worry about being rude. If your safety is in question, get out of there.”
Alex Mitchell is your go-to expert for all things mobile. With a passion for the latest smartphones, apps, and mobile innovations, Alex provides in-depth reviews, insightful analyses, and breaking news about the ever-evolving world of mobile technology. Stay connected with Alex to navigate the fast-paced realm of mobile devices.