How do you screen out serial killers on a dating app?

Practical tips to help you swipe left on danger. Because dating is weird enough without potentially being courted by a criminal

Published 9/19/2022 6:00 a.m. EDT

Woman kicks away creepy man’s dating profile

Because I’m a single woman, my friends send me stories about how being single sucks, like a Newsweek story about it being more likely for a woman over 40 to be killed by terrorists than to get married. That wasn’t even true, but as Rosie O’Donnell’s character said in “Sleepless In Seattle,” it feels true.

This week, more than one person forwarded the link to the bountifully yikes-inducing Washington Post story about a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, woman named Monica White who found out that Anthony Robinson, the deeply sketchy ex-boyfriend she met online, is the alleged “shopping cart killer.” He is so named because he’s accused of killing women and dumping their bodies in shopping carts. SO. MUCH. YIKES.

This was personally triggering because I’m the same age White was when she met her beau, and because all those people who told me that online dating was a one-way ticket to being the dead lady on a “Dateline NBC” episode may have a point. A Pew Research study from 2020 found that 46% of respondents believe that dating apps are somewhat unsafe or not safe at all, yet 1 in 3 people have used them, because it seems that’s just how you date now.

Most of the time, the most I worry about is some light catfishing, like that time that a dude on Hinge asked me if I rented or owned three minutes after we started chatting. And now I gotta worry about this?

Actually, I shouldn’t worry, says matchmaker and dating and relationship coach Michelle Jacoby of D.C. Matchmaking. “That’s a sad way to date,” she says. “Dating, or doing anything, from a place of fear is not a good decision. Online dating sites are a wonderful tool, and almost everyone on them are normal people looking for love. It’s like one person can cause a problem but it’s not most of the people.”

A better way to approach it is from a solid place of common sense. In the dating boot camp she runs, she said “we talk about strategy, about security and safety,” says Jacoby, the author of the book “Never Waste Time On The Wrong Man Again.” It’s not about anticipating trouble, but being smart. Here are some of her pointers:

  • Have a buddy system: In the mid-’90s, I went on my first and last date from a newspaper personal ad, and was so wary I had friends sit in the same diner several booths away to make sure he wasn’t going to murder me. Jacoby doesn’t suggest taking your friends on your actual date, but she does think they should know when you have one. “Someone should know exactly where you’re going. Take a screen shot. Let someone know ‘If you don’t hear from me by midnight, you know there’s a problem.’ ” It’s also a good idea to activate location services on your phone, she says. Not scared. Just smart.
  • Know who you’re dating before you do: Jacoby recommends that the participants in her dating boot camp use, a background check service that can be used with simply a phone number. Recently, a client plugged a potential date’s number in to find he’d had assault charges, “and immediately unmatched.” Whew!
  • Make note of those red flags flying: Jacoby says that women are socialized to be nice, even if that means ignoring those tiny flutters in your stomach that tell you this isn’t a good situation. Don’t do that. “If something doesn’t feel comfortable, you should feel comfortable offending someone if you don’t feel safe,” she says, adding that a good strategy is to end the date and go somewhere public, like a bookstore, and wait until the creepy date has left before walking to your car.
  • Be vigilant: You can’t let your guard down once you get past that first date and a relationship starts. Jacoby says that while she is absolutely not victim-blaming, there were specific tells in Monica White’s recounting of her relationship with Robinson that should have been concerning. For instance, he didn’t have a permanent address and “was a financial mess,” once showing up at White’s home with a one-way bus ticket and insisting he stay with her until he could make enough money to get back to D.C. “Some people are in financial messes who are not ax murderers, but it does mean their lives and their acts are not together. A man who can’t afford a bus ticket is not someone you should date,” she added. “Those types of red flags can be the tip of the iceberg, symptoms of all kinds of things hiding under the water that you can’t see.”
  • Visit and verify his village: Jacoby says it’s important to meet your potential partner’s friends, not only because you need to know that he has friends, and also that he isn’t hiding a whole other family in a different state, but because they can fill in some gaps. “You want to have access to them, to see the way they live,” she says. “When I met my husband, I asked his friends about him. I said ‘If you have a sister, would you let them date Rob?’ and they said ‘Yes.’ ”

One of the reasons that White’s story resonated so much with me was that it further illustrates how hard dating is for women over a certain age. But don’t despair, and don’t date just anybody because you think your pickings are slim, Jacoby says.

“If you have a fabulous profile and great pictures, being in your 50s matters not. Compromise is part of life, but settling is not something anyone should do.”

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