I woke up this morning to news that – in this corner of Indiana at least – was rather earth-shaking. At this point most every major news outlet has the story on their website so I will not be reiterating the story save for maybe the basics: A very skilled college football player discovered that his online relationship was a sham. While the details are still emerging and the story may change, the current story as it stands is enough to be discussed from the context of online relationships, their dangers, and their successes.
(Author’s note: I am aware of allegations being made that the “victim” was actually a willing participant in this hoax… that’s an article for another day.)
We live in a world where technology has far outpaced our ability to cope socially with advances. In the past ten years we have seen the advent of social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter and of technology such as the smartphone or tablet that allows us to stay connected to the internet. While the running joke is that there will come a time when we plug our brains in to the internet, the real truth is that we have reached the cusp of that point already. This rapid-fire breakneck pace has resulted in massive and significant changes to the way that we interact with other people. Where the dating scene before might have been relegated to common gathering places like bars, libraries, or group outings, it has now shifted to Match, OkCupid, or the realm of instant messages and social networks.
An aspect of this evolving online world is the realm of “online relationships”. This term can be used to describe several different situations but the common element is meeting and interacting with a person online with the goal of establishing a romantic relationship. It is the unspoken expectation that these romantic relationships begin in the online realm but then transcend to the physical world. This is what sites like OkCupid and Match expect; that you meet your potential partner online but then start engaging with them in real life within a reasonably short time. Unfortunately this is not always the case in venues outside of dating websites. And it is these venues that can create situations such as the one we are hearing of in the news now.
There are many dangers to establishing a romantic relationship online with someone you have never met in person through instant messengers, chat rooms, or even social networks. It is difficult to discern the true thoughts and intentions of the person behind those digital words on the screen. Are they sincere? Do they mean what they say? Without being able to place written words into context with other social cues – body language, tone of voice, etc. – the only context we have left is the context of our own minds. And that context can easily be corrupted by the presence of infatuation or other romantic feelings.
Those emotional feelings I just mentioned work well to serve as blinders and hide the dangers until it is too late. One of the most popular reasons behind a sham online relationship is the simplest: Blackmail and extortion. For years Nigerian scammers have used false personas in an attempt to establish an online relationship with an unsuspecting victim in an effort to entice money from them through some sort of “trouble” down the line. Sometimes out-and-out blackmail can be used if the online relationship has gone far enough and the target is sufficiently well-placed.
Now this is not to say that all online relationships are bad or should be ignored. If this were the case then Match and OkCupid would cease to exist. However there have to be certain safeguards in place to ensure that an online relationship works out and that you are not being taken for a ride:
1) Ask to see a picture. Ask to see several and/or pictures with family members. Most scammers have one or two pictures they provide; it is rare that they would have any with “family members” in them.
2) Don’t just talk about them. Talk about their lives and what goes on in their lives. They say the “devil is in the details” and this is a perfect example. The larger the web of details, the harder it is for a scammer to keep track of what was said. This makes them more likely to trip over their own feet if they contradict themselves later on.
3) Move to phone or voice contact within a week or two. Just as with pictures and details, a lot of scammers are going to be hard-pressed to find someone on short notice to talk via voice.
4) Be wary of requests for money or items, especially early on. It is a natural desire to want to support someone you have become infatuated with. But requests for money or items early on can be a sign that you’re being played.
5) If and when you do meet, try to meet at a neutral setting. In most cases scams never reach the stage of meeting someone. But you never want to sacrifice your safety by meeting in a place of their choosing – and you do not want them to feel suspicious meeting in a place of yours.
6) One chance to meet in person. Yes, meeting in person can be a huge deal. But if you’ve reached the point where you’ve spent the time and money to meet in person and they claim to have done the same, then there is no excuse for not meeting in person when arranged. Yes, flights can be delayed and there are such things as nerves. But if you are already talking to them via phone, then you should now be at the point where any changes to plans are taken care of ahead of time.
Many online relationships that started with a simple online presence have turned into wonderful things when the two people got together in person. Many more have fallen apart because it was a scam. It is possible to have a sustainable relationship with someone you have met online so long as care and caution are exercised. The keys to making an online relationship work are communication and, more importantly, exercising a healthy degree of care and caution.