“Never meet strangers from the Internet” You hear that everyday. You have probably even lectured your kids about it. Pretty sound advice, isn’t it? But, what about all the great things you’d miss if you followed that rule? You’d never find that vacation rental you have always dreamed about, your soulmate, the plumber who shows up on time or great deals on collectibles. You’d never sell that old clunker, your house or nab that job you wanted. There are many opportunities to connect, buy, sell, search and get help online. And, the truth is, if you are smart, careful and bring some sumo wrestling friends along with you, you can be safe and still meet people in real life that you had first met online.
But the risks are just as real. Murders, rapes, kidnapping and assaults, fraud, larceny, stalking – while they may not happen as often as you think they do, they happen too often. And in most cases are 100% preventable if you take some time to think and do it right.
The volunteers at WiredSafety and cyberlawyer Parry Aftab have been helping everyone stay safer online since 1995. They volunteer from their homes, work and school to help victims of cyberabuse and cybercrime, educate consumers and young people and advise policymakers and the industry on safer surfing and digital use. Here are some quick and easy “safe shopping”, “safe selling” and “safer encounters” tips to follow:
Do your homework – Use trusted sites, do some comparison shopping and when you find what you want, “Google” the company, website, person, address, email, contact information and product. (Bing, Yahoo and Facebook them too!) Scams, crooks, registered sex offenders, and ex-spouses may pop up. It’s a simple step that can save you money, heartbreak and harm. Ask for references, if you can. And check them out by phone. (It’s harder to fake 6 different people by phone than by email.)
Phone a friend – Run the deal or encounter by someone you know and trust. Sound too good to be true? (Then it probably isn’t true!) Does something feel wrong about it? Trust your gut and your friend’s advice. And, while you’re at it, take the friend with you when you go. And have at least one friend with you when showing your things to potential buyers or renters. Two may be “company”, but three (or more) is safer. (Especially if they are that sumo wrestler we mentioned earlier.)
Do it in public – You are much safer when others are around. Getting cornered alone in your or their basement when you are selling or buying that antique dresser isn’t fun. So move what you are selling into the driveway, onto your lawn or porch or into the lobby or garage of your building. The extra work is worth it! Ask them to do the same if they are selling, or hand them your digital camera to take a pic for you on the spot (to confirm there is really a dresser.) Blame it on a bad knee, fear of the dark or asthma, if you want to avoid confrontation. Or post your friend at the door and you go alone.
Keep a record – Print everything out - the ad, the email chain, pictures, directions, names and addresses. Save voicemails and texts. Ask if the item is new, used or refurbished. Print out comparison shopping info too. Many online “deals” are more expensive than current sales at a local store you like and trust. Let others know where you are (even if you bring a friend) or who is expected to arrive. Use your cellphone to snap a pic of them, their car or license plate. It’s a valuable record if the item turns out to be stolen, counterfeit or broken, or their check bounces (don’t take checks!) or they start harassing you.
Report what you find – If someone is helpful, delivered what they promised, was easy to work with and deserves praise, share that with others in real life and online. You may be able to “rate” the buyer or seller online. If they aren’t, share that too. And if you suspect fraud, criminal activity or encountered problems, report it. Do not pass go, or collect $200, just call your local police department (or theirs if they are not in your town), tell them what you know, what you suspect and the pics you took with your cell phone. The person you report may be off the streets with your help, and not able to hurt others not as savvy as you are.
Quick things to remember:
· While you might think you have found your soulmate, only time (in real life, not just online) will tell. Treat any first “real life: encounter as a first and blind date. No matter how much you know about them, you don’t really “know” anything. Take it slow and trust your gut. (And bring a friend to meet in a public place.)
· Be honest and demand honesty. Shaving off a couple pounds or a few years may not be criminal. But it’s not smart to start a relationship off built on lies. (Some cyberdating sites offer background (and marital status!) checks.)
· If things don’t add up, do some subtraction (like leaving the place, ending the communication or defriending someone). It’s easy to research someone’s Facebook and pose as their perfect mate, for lots of different reasons. Don’t let them follow you home or see your car, if it can be avoided.
· Don’t share personal info too early and guard your privacy. Use Craigslist’s email anonymizer, so you don’t have to share your real email with anyone online. Get a disposable email address, like Hotmail, Gmail or Yahoo. Use that for all communications and if things don’t end well, toss it away. Consider buying a pay as you go cell phone for early phone communications. Can’t be tracked to your house or disrupt your life, if you need to stop using it.
Take charge of your safety. Learn more (and maybe volunteer) at WiredSafety.org.
WiredSafety.org for help, information, education and to volunteer.
The FTC’s Onguard Online website (onguardonline.gov) – to learn how to be safer online and advice on consumer safety and protection.
The National Association of Attorneys General (Naag.org) for info on how to reach your state’s attorneys general office and their consumer protection bureaus.
Your local police department – call 911 for emergencies and their main numbers for anything else. Reporting cybercrimes locally should be your first step, if you are concerned about your physical safety.
StopCyberbullying.org – WiredSafety’s award-winning website and program to address cyberbullying impacting young people.
Cyberlawenforcement.org – WiredSafety’s website and program to help law enforcement agents become more cybersavvy.