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Safely Meeting People from the Internet

2016, November 03

If you're considering meeting in person with someone who you, thus far, have only ever talked to on the Internet, there are many things to consider in order to make the meeting as safe as possible. This could apply to any sort of meeting, from a casual friendly hang-out, to a sexual arrangement, to buying goods from strangers on sites like Craigslist. There are two main things to consider -- whether to meet at all, and what to do at the meet to be safer.

Should We Meet?

The first thing to consider is whether a meeting should take place at all. Meeting someone can be the appropriate next step in a platonic, romantic, or sexual relationship, and it can be a lot of fun and very rewarding, but it can also result in disaster.

How can you know whether you should meet someone? Here are our thoughts on the matter:

How well do you know them?

How much you know about a stranger can help close the gap between "stranger" and "friend." But what do you really know, and what is it based upon? Strangers can make any sort of claims about themselves, and in purely electronic interactions between people, it has never been very important that they back their claims up. You might ask, "why would they lie about being a doctor," for instance. Remember that, as much as people may be shamed for it, people enjoy the attention that comes from holding a respected position in society.

A stranger's personal claims may range across any number of areas, such as their race, gender, occupation, location, political attitudes, attitudes toward race or gender (for instance, having a problem with your race or gender), propensity for violence, etc. To be as safe as possible, try to verify these things as much as possible.

What can you do to verify facts about a person on the Internet?

  • Ask their friends and associates:
    • Have their personal claims ever been inconsistent?
    • Have you met this person in person?
    • Have they shared pictures? Video? Audio?
  • Things you can check for yourself:
    • Google Image Search or TinEye can help you to determine whether a person's pictures are their own, or if they are images originally made long ago by someone else.
    • If watching a person's webcam, you can ask them to do something complicated, such as a specific uncommon pose while holding certain specific household objects. For instance: Please show me the goofiest coffee cup you own, and pose with it like you are showcasing a prize on a game show. Because pre-recorded material may be available, it is important to make arbitrary or random choices with regard to what props should be included.

Even taking these precautions, you won't necessarily be able to validate all of someone's claims, and that is alright. You only need to know enough to feel safe enough by your own standard. This was written simply to demonstrate dangers you may not have considered.

Please consider also that all of these doubts and precautions are really only worth thinking about if establishing a serious connection or meeting someone, and subjecting every random chat room stranger to this level of scrutiny is unnecessary and, if you're confrontational about it, rude. This is about personal safety, not harassment.

What are they requesting?

If all of the facts about your stranger are in, or as many collected as possible or worth collecting, and you are amenable to the idea of meeting up, the next step is to analyze what your prospective meet-up candidate wants from you.

  • Do they insist on a particular location?
  • Is their mind set on a particular activity?
  • Do they insist on handling your transportation?
  • Do they understand and respect your boundaries?

All of these items can be summed up as: Does the other party seem to seek to rob you of your autonomy in setting up the meeting? If so, test their flexibility, and if they are entirely inflexible, decline. Predators engineer circumstances to be favorable to themselves.

So You've Decided to Meet

If, after all this, your stranger seems to be trustworthy, respectful of your needs and boundaries, and open to setting up a safe meeting, the next phase is to set up and then attend the meeting.

The Setup

The objective here is to arrange as many factors as possible to accommodate the safest experience possible for all involved.

  • Location:
    • Public - Are there people around who you can ask for help if you need to do so? Are there cameras? Does the location have a lot of blind spots where someone could take you out of public view? Bars, while public, may not fulfill these needs, because many drunk customers may be entirely unhelpful if something goes wrong.
    • Accessible - Does the location have easy access to a major road, bus stops, subway stations, or busy pedestrian routes? Can you come and go easily?
    • Neutral - Is this someone else's home ground, where everyone knows them, but no one knows you?
    • Quiet - Not silent, because that means no one is around to help if you need it, but quiet enough that any attempt to get help won't go unheard. A loud dance club may not be a good location for a first meeting, even if it fulfills all other factors for what makes a good location.
  • Time:
    • Will the location be closing soon, forcing you to refactor your plans without time for careful consideration?
    • Will many neighboring locations be closed or closing soon, leaving you with few or no places to go in case of an emergency?
  • Transportation:
    • Parking: Is parking available nearby if you need to flee in your car? Is the parking easy to get in and out of?
    • Public Transit: Will timely public transit be available when the meeting ends?
    • How fast will a cab, Uber, Lyft, etc be to respond, and will you have somewhere safe to wait?

These are only some of the factors involved, those we could think of, in setting up a safe meeting. Talk to others and consult your own ideas for more, and ultimately, if something makes you wary, resolve it or cancel plans.

Tip: A great tool for scouting locations for meetings and dates is Google Street View. You can get good daylight images of a location, figure out where nearby bus stops, crosswalks, shady alleys to avoid, etc are located, where the entrances and exits for buildings are, etc. You can also investigate neighboring locations for their opening and closing times to create fallback/emergency escape plans.

The Meeting

At this stage, ideally, you just want everything to go according to plan. With so many dangerous factors accounted for ahead of time, you can unwind and have a good time, mostly. However, there is still cause for caution. Having fun doesn't require letting your guard down entirely. Keep your eyes open, your back to the wall (rather than to the door). Don't drink. Have an escape plan. Bring whatever legal, concealable weapons will be allowed on the premises, or improvise something, such as a brick in a purse, a heavy keychain, a table as a barrier, etc. Stay near staff and customers. If you are uncomfortable, express it so that others can hear it.