Roughly 40 million Americans use online dating sites like Match.com, Zoosk.com, and eHarmony.com to find love, and that number is on the rise. And while many do meet “the one”—17% of people who married in the past year met their mate on the internet–they’re also facing serious privacy issues along the way.
Dating sites can lose your info or get hacked.
One study found that one in ten members of online dating sites is a scammer. Recent data breaches on PlentyofFish.com and eHarmony.com put hundreds of members’ personal info at risk. Many dating sites’ terms of service allow them to share their users’ information with advertisers and partner sites. For a detailed example, check out our look at privacy risks on Match.com and OkCupid.com.
We’re offering the following five tips on how to keep your bank account and your personal information safe while getting a date.
1. Read the site’s privacy policies before you sign up. Seriously.
Know your privacy limits, what makes you uncomfortable and what you’re willing to deal with in order to be on a dating site, and don’t compromise. Pay special attention to the part about third parties. Find out whether the site shares your information with advertisers, partner companies, research firms, etc. Will they use behavioral tracking technology to follow your activity on their site and target you with ads? If they’re allowed to email you, how often and about what?
2. Understand how the site will charge you.
Once you’ve decided on a dating site, make sure that you’re clear on how you’ll be paying. There are plenty of free sites available, such as OkCupid, but many members feel that pay sites offer a higher level of experience, customer service, and member quality.
Some dating sites offer different levels of membership. Lower levels are cheaper, but your site activity is limited: you may be able to view other members’ profiles but not contact them, for example. Or you may only be able to send a set number of messages per month. Make sure that you get all the features that you want with whatever type of membership you select.
Certain sites use deceptive billing methods. Beware of “free trials” that charge your credit card when they expire. If the site has a minimum enrollment period, chances are it will automatically renew your payment when it expires. If the site doesn’t meet your expectations, be sure that you cancel your account before you’re charged again. Monthly credit card charges can sneak up on you if you aren’t careful.
Worse yet, some sites don’t allow members to cancel when they’re unsatisfied with their experiences. Look for a site that offers a satisfaction guarantee.
3. Don’t give out more information than you have to.
The personal info you provide to dating sites falls into 2 main categories: registration/account creation, and profile/site activity. Dating sites treat these two categories of information separately.
The info you voluntarily provide in your personal profile and all of your public site activity, however, is far less secure. Many sites disclaim any control over it. It’s probably archived, and other members can copy and save it themselves. If you post it on the public part of the site, it’s no longer yours. Taking quizzes, posting comments, putting up pictures: it’s all fair game, so think twice before you put it up.
This advice also applies to messages between individual members. Unfortunately, spammers run rampant on dating sites. If a perfect 10 replies to your message to profess his or her love for you while asking for your social security number and credit card info (or talking about Nigerian banking), it’s probably too good to be true.
One way to see expose a spammer is to request a few photos. While a spammer may have one, it’s rare that they have several to back up their faux persona.
4. Well-timed messages from your ideal match are probably too good to be true.
Many members of online dating sites have reported a similar experience when they’re in the process of cancelling their accounts: right as they’re about to leave, they get an enticing message from a person who appears to be their perfect match. Intrigued, they renew their membership, only to find that they never receive a second message. ConsumerSearch.com writes about this practice,
This looks suspiciously like the website is deliberately trying to lure registered members into a subscription. There are similar reports of receiving a rash of emails or “flirts” shortly after cancelling a subscription, which might be construed as a ruse to lure you back.
In 2010, the federal government ordered the Australian dating site Red Hot Pie to send an apology email to its members for having over a thousand fake profiles that sent out strategic messages like these to lure members into staying (and paying). Consumers also brought a fraud suit against Match.com in 2005 for similar “date bait.”
5. Don’t forget basic internet security rules.
The same privacy protection rules that apply to all of your online activity apply to internet dating sites:
- Use a strong password. Make sure it’s at least 8 characters and that you change it often. Don’t tell it to anyone. Combine letters, numbers, and symbols, and don’t make it easy for others to guess (such as using your name, birthday, or “123abc” or other common passwords).
- Close your browser and log out when you’re done, particularly when you’re on a public computer or using unsecured wifi, such as in a coffee shop.
- Block tracking technology, ad networks, and other forms of behavioral advertising. Almost every website, including dating sites, tracks its visitors’ activity in order to build a profile of their interests and target them with ads. For example, eHarmony used 4 tracking sites and 1 ad network when we visited it with our PrivacySuite browser add-on.
- Delete unwanted cookies when you’re done browsing, either through your browser’s privacy settings or with privacy software like DoNotTrackMe.
The advice we’ve given you thus concerns your online identity, but we offer a final reminder about your real life privacy: be careful when meeting up with anyone you’ve met online. Appearances can be deceiving, especially online. Maybe people are not who they claim to be. Arrange to meet someone in a public, crowded place, and tell a friend or family member where you’re going to be. Set up a safety call: if you don’t call them by the expected time, they’ll assume that something’s wrong.
Good luck, stay safe, and happy dating from Abine.