ROANOKE (WSLS10)-- With Valentine's Day less than two weeks away, many people are turning to match-making website and dating apps looking for love. The sites report a 30% to 70% increase in users around the holiday and up to 150% more user interactions.
If you have plans to go out with someone you met online, it's important to keep your safety in mind-- especially when taking a relationship from the online world to the real world.
Scott Leamon, the Crime Prevention Specialist for Roanoke City Police, says it's important to do your research on anyone you meet online. A simple Google search of their name or running their profile picture through a Google Image Search could provide some key information on whether your date really is who they say they are.
When it comes time to meet up in person, police say choosing a well-lit area where a lot of people are around is the best option. Opting for an earlier date, like lunch or coffee, gives you a definite way to end the date early-- by running errands or going back to work after. It's also important to let your friends or family know where and when you're meeting up with dates. Leamon says you could even take them along with you.
"It wouldn't be a bad idea to take a friend with you," he explains. "She sits over at the bar and hangs out to make sure everything is fine. That way you've got a definite out, in case you need it."
It's also important to keep your personal information safe. That means waiting to give out your home or cell phone number until you're more confident about the future of the relationship. Police also suggest just meeting at the for a date, instead of giving out your address and having someone pick you up at home.
"The days of getting picked up for the first date, him dropping off the roses and taking you to his car, those are over," Leamon says. "I would not want to do that, not on the first date. Maybe on the second or third, but that's up to the woman."
He also says not to leave your drink unattended for the first few dates. If you have to go to the bathroom, take your drink with you or order a fresh one when you get back to the table.
Meanwhile, the Better Business Bureau is warning about an online dating scam that seems to be specifically targeting women in Southwest Virginia. Over the past year, a man pretending to live in Roanoke has been reaching out to local women-- making them fall in love then asking them for money.
Although the scam has been reported to the dating sites, experts say it's still happening. The most recent report of a Virginia woman being targeted by the scammer was just last week.
Investigators say the man, using the name Jeffrey Curtis, meets the women online-- talking to to them for months and making them fall in love. He then tells them about a work disaster or a tragedy that is preventing him from accessing his money. Victims say he even provided them with doctored up bank statements and news websites with links to his phony tragedy.
Then, he asks them to send money. Many of the women say they felt like they were just helping the man they loved. The President of the Better Business Bureau of Western Virginia, Julie Wheeler, says the women have lost as much as $9,000 and even $18,000 in the scam.
They say it's not just about the money, but the women have been devastated when they find out that love was all a ploy to get their cash.
"The emotional toll has been terrible," says Wheeler. "These are recently widowed women. They're very lonely and just looking for a way to continue their lives. They've lost their spouse are are just looking for something. It's very sad."
While women appear to be the main target for this scam, Wheeler warns that men can easily become targets as well. She says both men and women need to be cautious of anyone asking for money.
"With the men that are being targeted, it's always the 'Oh please take care of me,'" she explains. "[The women say] 'I'm so helpless. Can you be the big strong man and send me money to get me out of the trouble I'm in?'"
Red flags to look out for include sudden changes of plans-- like the cancellation of a visit or multiple dates being cancelled. Wheeler says to also be suspicious of anyone asking for money, especially someone you just met.
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