Leona O'Neill

Leona O'Neill has been a journalist in Northern Ireland for over 20 years working with, among others, the Belfast Telegraph, Sunday Life, Daily Mirror and the Irish News. She is also a news reporter on Q Radio, a weekly columnist with the Irish News and a commentator for the BBC. She is a mother of four children - two of them teenagers - and as such is also a full-time professional worrier.

Use your head, as well as your heart, in online dating to avoid being burned

It seems every aspect of our lives is played out online these days. We shop without leaving the comfort of our sofa. We can experience the sights and sounds of new places through YouTube without stepping out our front doors.

We can embark upon an adventure through Go-Pro cameras strapped to the heads of daredevils without even putting a hair on our heads out of place.

And we can find love, not by meeting people in person and allowing sparks to fly, but by flicking through reams of potential mates on online dating sites, choosing who you like and clicking on them if you click with them.

Many couples have found true love on the internet. There is an abundance of long-term relationships, marriages and endless love that has begun at the mere click of a mouse or the gentle swipe of a screen. A testament surely to the power of digital love.

But there has been just as many online dating disasters reported globally, incidents of harassment, assaults, stalking, rapes and even murders connected with the online search for love.

Dating apps and sites have now reached a global membership community of over 91 million people, with seven million of them in the UK. In these modern times now one in three relationships start online.

But the dramatic rise in online dating is mirrored only with an equally alarming rise in crimes related to the practice.

Figures from UK police forces show that in a five year period between 2011 and 2016 there were 2.054 offences related to online dating reported. And those numbers have multiplied year on year since.

Police the world over warn those looking for love online to be careful, to be mindful of going on dates with strangers, to do their online homework before they agree to go anywhere with anyone they have met online and to never reveal too much about themselves to online love interests so as to prevent stalking.

Navigating the dating scene in real life is treacherous enough. Add in technology, the potential for scammers, the possibility of sexual predators and the risk of having your heart broken as well as your bank account raided and you have serious matters beyond the heart to contend with.

Online dating scammers aren’t that easy to spot. People who have been caught out have said that their scammers expressed strong emotions relatively soon after they made contact, suggesting moving the relationship away from the website to phone, email or messenger.

The con artists went to great lengths to gain their trust over a period of months and pretended to book flights to come and see them but never showed up.

Once trust is gained the scammers asked for money, gifts of bank details, often for some manner of emergency. Some even asked for pictures or videos of an intimate nature to use as blackmail later.
Don’t get caught out. Use your head.

Top tips to stay safe when online dating

  1. Keep your conversations restricted to the website or app, stay within the messaging services. If you stay within these perimeters scammers are unlikely to target you because the dating site will pick up on their behaviour.
  2. Don’t be afraid to block. If someone is abusive or inappropriate, cut them off.
  3. As someone wise once said, you can’t hurry love. It’s often easier to read into the written word, rather than the spoken one, which means you can feel you know someone well before you actually do. Take things slowly. Bear in mind the other person is a stranger and only move forward if you are sure they are who they say they are.
  4. Do your homework. Research your potential suitor online. Check Google Images to check if the photos they are using are actually someone else and check out social media to make sure they are a real person. Don’t be afraid to block if something doesn’t feel right.
  5. A good way to approach these matters of the heart without peril is to meet potential partners in a public spot. Don’t ever go to their house or invite them to your house on a first date. And always tell a friend where you are going.

Dating is different now as to how it was when many of us were young, and certainly different to when our parents were ‘courting’. As long as you are careful and cautious you won’t fall foul when falling in love in this modern age.

Love is all about throwing caution to the wind and losing yourself in the romance of it all, but with modern technological enhancements that provides us with reams of potential partners, comes very modern problems.

Love is all about taking risks. Although there are some pitfalls in online dating the reward is, after all, love, so perhaps it is worth it. It’s up to all those seeking love to use your head as well as your heart in such matters.