As a veteran online manager for major players like America Online and The Microsoft Network (MSN), I’ve often had occasion to meet people I’ve only known online. While I’ve never dated someone from online, I’ve known hundreds of people who have; I have even had the great pleasure of attending a few weddings of online sweethearts and celebrated several long term marriages that began that way.
Yet whether you’re meeting an online friend for romantic purposes or just to have a cup of coffee, understand that there is a certain amount of risk involved in the process. While such cases are rare, there have been a number of instances where a real-time, flesh and blood meeting between two people who became fast friends online have ended in more than just discomfort. Rape, robbery, physical abuse have occurred as a result; so have some very strange evenings in which you aren’t sure you are going to get away from the person who seemed so normal and friendly online and like a complete nutcase in person.
In my own experience, I’ve sat down for a great meeting only to discover the person immediately hits me up for a big loan, has all but hired private detectives to learn “all my secrets” before our meeting, and in one strange night, had someone propose marriage to me. He did NOT take it well when I laughed nervously in response. Mind you, he and I had never discussed anything really personal prior to the meeting. I thought we were getting together just to chat and share a pizza.
There are added risks, however, when you and the other person are – both – hoping for the sparks of romance to occur. If your more-than-just-friendship has entirely taken place online, you really don’t know that much about the other person, even if you have spent months chatting. Sure, you might think you know each other’s heart but, in fact, you don’t even have any way of knowing for sure that the other person regularly brushes his or her teeth or isn’t just out on an evening pass from the local sanatorium.
My friend, Carole, asked for my advice, knowing I was an old pro at meeting folks from online. She was preparing to see the man she had fallen madly in love with online and she wanted everything to be perfect. When I suggested that rather than meeting at his apartment or at a fairly remote park as he recommended, they meet up somewhere very public with lots of other people around, Carole stopped listening.
“I know Pete. He’s perfect. He’s the love of my life. He would never, ever do anything to harm me. If I tell him I’ll only meet him in the middle of Grand Central Station, he will think I don’t trust him,” she told me, sounding hurt.
Unfortunately for Carole, she sounded far more hurt after “Pete” got her to come to his home and then literally would not let her leave once Carole discovered he was a few cards short of a full deck. Pete was also quite inebriated when she arrived, which probably did not help the situation any.
Within an hour, the only way Carole got out of his apartment was by beginning to scream after he grabbed her wrists and tried to pull her toward the bedroom. When neighbors came to investigate, she fled, not stopping to breathe until she was back on the train headed home to New Jersey.
While Carole’s predicament was unusual, it really doesn’t hurt to observe basic, common sense safety measures before you actually meet anyone for the first time, regardless of how well you think you know the person ahead of time. Just as you probably wouldn’t schedule a blind date with someone new for a remote location, don’t do it with someone else you’ve never met before either.
Consider these recommendations before you set up that meeting:
1. Pick a place to meet that you either know or can reasonably assume is a fairly public, well lit location where there are phones and access to help if needed.
2. Take your charged cell phone along.
3. Don’t take along any more documents – Social Security card, credit cards, checkbook, and likewise – than you absolutely need. Some people will arrange to meet others just to steal their personal or financial information.
4. Let a friend or loved one know where you are going, who you will be meeting, and when you expect to return.
5. If you have any real cause for concern, either reschedule the meeting or have them come to you, at a public restaurant or other building where you feel comfortable.
6. You don’t need to bring along brass knuckles or a loaded semi-automatic, but it probably doesn’t hurt if you have a can of pepper spray or one of those personal security devices that screech loudly if you need to summon help.