As a college student, I am surrounded by people using dating apps.
Two of my best friends met their current boyfriends on a dating app, and they are in healthy and happy relationships. However, I am no stranger to the horror stories of bad dates, catfishes, and hook-up culture. Most people who use these apps do not consider the misuse of these technologies to gather information on potential victims by criminals. The often-overlooked dangers of online dating are rooted in a false sense of security. As young adults, we are comfortable with the internet and social media. We feel a sense of understanding of online security because we have grown up with the internet. There is a general lack of privacy where posting personal information is considered normal. However, according to Spencer Coursen in The Safety Trap, we are in the most danger when we feel the safest and let our defenses down.
Using online dating apps without the proper safety precautions may unintentionally increase the vulnerability of victimization. As a society, we have been taught that human trafficking and sexual exploitation happens in dark, dingy places or overseas in third-world countries. Unfortunately, that is simply not the case. The connection between human trafficking and dating applications is simple; information gathering. Human trafficking is not always as cinematic and extreme as being kidnapped in the middle of the night. Human traffickers use a strategic grooming process to gain access to information to coerce their victims. Grooming questions can look like, “What do your parents do for a living?” or, “Which school do you attend?” These seemingly innocent questions can create the foundation of trust that eventually leads to compromising information being exchanged. A skilled social media stalker could easily find a Facebook or Instagram account with minimal information provided on a dating app profile, such as a user’s first name, place of employment, or college. Dating applications are full of people trying to build healthy relationships, so it is essential to be wary of individuals without the interest of a healthy relationship in mind.
When we are young, our parents tell us not to talk to strangers; now, we have an app to meet and connect with strangers with the swipe of a finger. They tell us never to get in the car with someone we do not know; now, we have an app on our phone that allows us to do just that. The world is changing, and security concerns are changing, too. The truth is, young adults are going to use dating apps. While the statistical correlation across all adults and their use of dating apps vary, it is clear that many young adults are using dating apps and websites. According to Pew Research Center, “48% of 18- to 29-year-olds say they have used a dating site or app.” It is convenient and generally an enjoyable form of social media. However, there is value in being familiar with the tactics of criminals or those with ill intent.
As young adults, we are going to make mistakes. It is challenging to grow up in a world where your mistakes are preserved for all to see in an online footprint. It is important to understand that dating applications are a reality, and you can be targeted for your vulnerability. While the extent to which people take the relationships from online to in-person varies drastically, there are some tips that can be taught to ensure they are making good decisions with whom you choose to connect with online. Many of these tips are transferable to remaining safe in the “real life” dating world, as well.
1. Someone you have never met owes you no loyalty. Any compromising information or images that you share with them can be used as blackmail. Be careful with what personal information you share.
2. Identify the reason you are using the dating app. What is your goal? Are you looking to meet someone to have a long-term relationship?
3. If you decide it is safe to meet up with someone, share your location with a friend or family member. Let them know the details of the date: Where are you going? How are you getting there? When will you be back?
4. Recognize grooming signs and do not accept large gifts during the first couple of meetings.
5. If you end up in a compromising situation, reach out and get help. Between 2015 and 2018, the National Human Trafficking Hotline found that over 1,000 trafficking cases involving young adults involved online platforms like social media and dating apps. There is an outlet to seek help and protect your safety.
It is important to note that most human trafficking victims are trafficked by someone they know and often trust. However, that only validates the grooming tactics used in the on-line dating scenario. ◙
About the Author Catherine Kildea
Catherine Kildea is a junior at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. She is studying politics and intelligence studies. She has interned for Congressman Ralph Abraham as well as Congressman Mike Rogers. She recently finished interning for The Heritage Foundation where she completed research used for the Yearly Report, which the President and Vice President of Heritage reviewed. She was chosen to participate in the Cherry Blossom Princess Program in 2020 and 2021.
The program is week-long and offers cultural, educational, and professional development opportunities for young women leaders, ages 19 through 24, from across the United States and worldwide. She has conducted research on counterterrorism and virtual kidnapping. She is currently a research intern for Kiernan Group Holdings where she is focused on domestic extremism. Her interests include national security, intelligence, and specifically human trafficking.