When you meet a hot new romantic prospect online or in person, safety precautions are, understandably, probably not the first thing on your mind. (Adding pepper spray to your purse along with essentials like mascara or condoms? Not sexy, to say the least.) We’re not here to give you a buzzkill lecture, but we are here to remind you that putting too much of yourself out there too fast can put you at risk—especially in the app-centric dating world of 2016.
In the interest of being over-prepared (again, not hot, but when have you ever regretted it?) when you’re dating a stranger, we grilled experts—from CIA and FBI agents to privacy pros—about what women can do to keep themselves safe while they’re dating. Below are 15 of their top tips.
Don’t Give a Stranger Personal Deets.
Does that Bumble prospect really need to know where you were raised and your mother’s maiden name? Nope. “A stalker or predator can attempt to find you through this information,” says Mary Ellen O’Toole, a former FBI criminal profiler and author of Dangerous Instincts. “Even things like where you were born can give someone enough information to Google you through a people-finder and locate you.” Avoid!
Don’t Give out Your Number too Early.
It’s pretty common practice to switch over from Tinder or OKCupid to texting once a flirtation has been going on for a little while, but think twice before you hand over your phone number, says O’Toole. “That phone is one more link to you and depending on their tech savvy, they can hack into your phone, track your whereabouts, or continuously text and call you.” Remember that once someone has certain info about you, there’s no taking it back.
Don’t Post Identifying Info.
Yeah, it’s tempting to post humblebrag photos of your new car or apartment on Instagram, but you may not realize just how much about yourself those little things can reveal. “From your car’s license plate to other identifiable details such as street signs and house numbers, these photographs can reveal a lot of information,” says privacy expert and advocate Mark Weinstein.
Be Careful About Posting too Many Revealing or Partying Pics.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t show off how hot you looked in that wrap dress or low-cut top on your League profile—just be careful if those are the only kinds of photos on there, because certain (sick) people could see this as their permission slip to take advantage of you. “Not only are decent people online looking to meet a nice woman—but disturbed predators are, too,” says former FBI profiler Candice Delong. “If you put yourself out there in the wrong way, the wrong person might think he or she is JUST the one to give you what they think you want.” Yikes—not worth it. Try to keep most of those hilarious shot-taking and booty-shaking shots for yourself and your friends (read: a private Instagram profile or shared iPhoto stream).
Chatting about things like your job title, company you work for, college you went to, or neighborhood you live in are typical online dating small-talk topics, but they’re not so harmless, says Jason Hanson, CIA agent and author of Spy Secrets That Can Save Your Life. “Never give specific details about your job or where you like to hang out because then some creeper will know where to find you.” It might seem boringly vague, but consider it a challenge to your conversational skills to find something else to chat about.
Googling Someone isn’t Paranoid—it’s Smart.
If you knew ahead of time your date had a record, would you still go out with him or her? “We tend to show only our best side when getting to know someone—so buyer beware,” says Delong. “Always do at least a simple Google search on a potential date, and an advanced search is even better. Try to verify what they are telling you about themselves.”
Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover.
There’s a lot you can learn from someone’s photos and a lot that can mislead you. “Remember, everyone’s nice on the first date—even psychopaths,” says Delong. “Ted Bundy, one of the most prolific serial killers of young women in history, was a handsome and charismatic. Women voluntarily went off with him because he didn’t look like a bad guy. When he got them in his car, their hours were numbered.” A nice smile and polite small talk demeanor doesn’t mean someone doesn’t have a dark side.
Meet in Public for the First Few Dates.
Think parks, restaurants, coffee shops, and pretty much any public place. “Try to choose places you’re familiar with,” says O’Toole. If possible, avoid dark, secluded bars during a first meeting. And don’t meet in locations where you’re alone or confined. “Be very leery about meeting in remote places like a hiking trail, boat, or a park. While romantic, there might be no one around if you need help,” she says.
Always Pick the Place.
“Never, ever let your date pick the place,” says Hanson. “They could have it prearranged to have something bad happen. You never want to give a potential criminal the advantage to be on their turf.” The chances of this happening are slim, but it only takes one person with hidden bad intentions to harm you.
Never Lead Someone on.
Stalking situations can happen through no fault of your own, but usually develop after an intimate relationship has begun, says Delong. “For some people, a simple kiss on the cheek is enough to launch a delusion that you love them. It’s impossible to know what’s inside someone’s head and heart.”
Trust Your Gut.
If your instincts are telling you something is wrong, believe them. “If you think someone has lied to you, you’re probably right. If you overlook it, you may end up regretting it later,” says Delong. Hanging around and trying to make it feel right is a risk not worth taking.
Tell People About the Date.
“Always tell another person where you’re going and who you’re with, and check in with your friends or a family member during the date,” says O’Toole. Also, give them an idea of when you’ll be back and make sure to alert them when the date is over. This adds an extra layer of safety to any date you go on with a stranger.
Watch Your Alcohol (Literally).
“Be aware of your limits and don’t drink so much that you lose control of the situation,” says Weinstein. “It’s wise to keep an eye on your glass or bottle to ensure nobody adds anything unexpected to it.” Can’t finish your wine before hitting the bathroom? Tell your date you don’t want to drink too much tonight, or you could even tell the waiter you didn’t love it and ask for a new one. A little awkward in the moment, maybe, but better than downing drugs unknowingly.
Have Your “Gotta Go!” Excuse Ready.
Don’t be afraid to leave a date prematurely if the other person is making you uncomfortable in any way, says O’Toole. “Develop your ‘early leaving’ statement before meeting up for the date, and practice what you’ll say if you decide he—or she!–is too creepy and you want to leave early,” she says. Better not to spend more face time with someone who’s giving you a bad feeling and get out of there ASAP.
If You’re Not Feeling it, Don’t be Afraid to Ghost.
After you tell someone you’re not interested, never take their calls or emails again. “Continually responding to messages telling a person ‘no’ over and over again only fuels the fire and makes them think you’re really interested,” says Hanson. “They might even see it as a challenge.” Don’t be afraid to just go off the grid—it’s not rude, it’s a clear signal to back off.