The way we live has changed. Most of us use the internet every day, making new friends on Facebook and Twitter, using websites such as Gumtree to buy and sell and signing on to dating websites and apps to meet potential partners.
But sitting at a laptop in the safety of the living room could be lulling many of us into a false sense of security.
According to a UK research body, most harassment and cyberstalking (one-in-five cases) occurs via contact made on social-networking sites like Facebook rather than via dating websites (four percent of cases), so understanding the sites you use is crucial.
“I would question how much some people actually understand what they are doing online,” says Orla Murphy who lectures in emerging digital technologies at University College Cork in Ireland.
She explains: “The change in how we use technology is profound. It is a cultural and societal shift – and requires digital literacy that goes beyond the surface interface. Do you understand the GPS in a phone and camera? Do you think about not just your Facebook privacy settings but friends too? We need to ask questions and understand the risks, we can all make ourselves safer through education, awareness and understanding.”
Check privacy settings and be aware that even if your page is private, if you post a picture that is “liked” by someone whose settings are public, that makes your picture public.
Without face-to-face contact it’s also important to read carefully what your online contact is saying.
Dr Rachel O’Connell, an internet safety expert, says there are a number of warning signs to look out for.
“Keep in mind that it’s always possible for people to misrepresent themselves and there’s greater scope to do so when communicating online,” she says.
“Trust your instincts and listen out for any facts that seem inconsistent or ‘off’. If your suspicions are raised, it’s not impolite to end the conversation or if you’re on a date and feel uncomfortable, don’t worry about being rude, leave.”
She adds: “Look out for ‘relationship acceleration disorder’. When a person wants to get very close very fast it can be a warning sign particularly if the person ignores your requests to slow down the pace at which you’re getting to know one another. Also watch out for vague answers, tall stories and inconsistent tales.”
Unfortunately while child safety online is getting the attention it deserves, that’s not the case with protecting women online. It seems to be assumed that adults know how to protect themselves.
Which isn’t always the case. Avril Mulcahy, who runs a boutique online dating service and often finds herself picking up the pieces from clients who’ve had bad experiences online, says: “I’ve had two female clients come to me recently after being harassed by men through online dating encounters,” she says.
“One successful and intelligent 43-year-old woman was lulled into a false sense of security early on with a man she met online.
“She had no idea that she was in contact with a convicted criminal. He knew how to charm her, she never heard the alarm bells when he said he couldn’t afford a holiday they’d planned and she offered to pay for it by giving him her credit card.
“She’s still paying off the debt on her card and, after breaking up, he harassed her for over a year. The police are now involved.”
“We would have concerns that women over 40, who may have come out of a relationship and entered into dating again, may be being identified as a vulnerable group by sexual predators,” agrees Fiona Neary, executive director for the Irish Rape Crisis Network.
“The dating world is a new landscape for them and they may not be as technologically savvy so could be seen as a vulnerable target.”
She adds: “Attacks stemming from internet encounters isn’t something being reported in a significant way at the moment but that’s no reason not to be concerned. The internet is a tool predators use and it’s one to keep an eye on.”
Experts advise “a common sense approach” including not divulging personal information and not arranging to meet alone in an isolated place.
But there’s also scope to make evolving technology work for you. Rather than providing an online contact with your private e-mail or phone number, try setting up a separate account or using apps like Burner, Gliph and Wickr, which create disposable numbers, e-mails and messages.
Phone the person before meeting (if someone selling a car online has said they’re a 20-year-old female, a 50-year-old man is not going to be able to keep that illusion up over the phone) and apps such as Moby, which shares your location with friends, or the Stay Safe Personal Safety Tracker, described as “the new three rings to say ‘I’m home safe’ “ can offer a level of security.
But in the case of arranging for someone to collect the washing machine you’ve sold on Gumtree, is there any way to avoid inviting a stranger into your home?
“You can only take the same precautions as if it was an ad in the free ads or organised via phone,” says Orla Murphy.
“Ultimately the issue isn’t about digital culture in general. There is nothing amiss with the technology per se, it is individuals who use it for evil.”
“It’s important not to over emphasise the danger posed by the internet,” agrees Neary. “The internet has provided a lot of positives for women, particularly in terms of providing victims with support. Statistically the fact remains that the majority of women will continue to be victimised by someone they know.” – Irish Independent
Blogger Claire Craig (29) says:
“I met him on a dating site and we exchanged photos but as soon as we met up it was clear his had been about 10 years out of date.
“That in itself felt a bit sinister because I felt he’d misrepresented himself but I stayed on the date – which was disastrous – for 40 minutes to be polite, then made my excuses and left.
“He must have had a totally different impression because he continued to e-mail and text me quite prolifically for a long while afterwards.
“At first I tried to give him the gentle brush-off but he didn’t get the hint. There were a significant number of messages and while none of them was overtly threatening it was enough to make me feel uncomfortable and upset.
“Eventually he stopped but I wish I’d thought of giving a different e-mail or phone number. The fact that it was my personal account definitely added to the feeling of harassment and intrusion.
“I’m always very safety conscious meeting guys online. I always tell someone who I’m meeting and where I’m going and try to meet during the day and with no alcohol.
“But I had a very negative experience recently with a guy who was very threatening and it was someone who I met in a bar.
“I think I let my guard down a bit because he wasn’t ‘off the internet’ when actually one way of meeting someone isn’t any more risky than the other.”