The keyboard gives people courage. It’s easy to fall into a false sense of security when the Internet seems like just a screen on your desk or in the palm of your hand. But being connected to the web means you are connected to the world, and there are certain vulnerabilities that LGBT people in particular need to keep in mind.
The LGBT Technology Partnership, Stop Think Connect, and the National Cyber Security Alliance have teamed up to share online safety tips for people in the LGBT community. “Whether you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or straight, how you conduct yourself online can reveal a lot about you – perhaps more than you’d be comfortable sharing. One of the biggest concerns for LGBT individuals is the amount of information across multiple social platforms that could easily expose their sexual orientation or gender identity. As a result, your online conduct from your interactions on social networks to the mobile apps you download can lead to real life unintended consequences,” says their recently-released guide “What LGBT Communities Should Know About Online Safety.”
They recommend taking ownership of your online presence by reviewing your privacy settings on social networks, enabling notifications so you can see which posts and photos of you are posted, and doing a search for yourself to make sure nothing comes up that you don’t want the world to know. If you find a site that has something you don’t like, contact the website administrator immediately and ask them to remove or revise the content.
Protecting your personal information is also vital. The guide recommends taking time to think before you act and “be wary of communications that push for your immediate action or ask for person information.” Take caution before downloading apps and unknown files. And remember that “once posted, always posted.” This means “think twice before sending or posting pictures or comments you would not want your parents, co-workers or other friends to see.”
Equality Michigan, a statewide advocacy organization with a victim’s services program, also has advice for LGBTs online. Yvonne Siferd, director of victims services knows all too well the dangers of not being careful online. Her organization helps people who have not only been hurt by online rumors, outings and bullying, but also those who have become victims of crime.
“Young people, people in the closet, and other vulnerable populations are also particularly at risk online – and not just in the LGBT communities,” Siferd said. “Predators target vulnerable people, and because of the anonymity they can pose as anyone. They learn how to speak the language of whomever they are targeting.
“Targeting young people, closeted people, and those with low self-esteem is the hallmark of these predators because a little bit of flattery can go a long way in building trust. Once a little trust is built, they begin to make demands, usually pictures/videos. As the predator builds their library on their victims they blackmail the victims with the pics/vids they’ve previously sent. And that’s when the demands become increasingly more humiliating and degrading.”
One scenario is with male dating or hook-up sites. “Men targeting gay men on online hook-up sites (squirt, adam 4 adam, etc.), sometimes hooking up with them and taking photos or simply getting them to send them photos and then using the photos as blackmail,” is a situation that Victims Services has seen over and over again. “I’m going to send these photos to your family/boss, etc. unless you give me money,” is the example Siferd said.
Beyond the potential for blackmail are hook-up crimes, where someone is targeted online and then robbed or assaulted upon meeting. Each year there are cases of this happening in Michigan and elsewhere. Siferd said that “there absolutely are dangers in meeting strangers online, but there are things you can do to minimize the risks.”
She gave the following tips to have a safer online experience:
1. Understand that if you are going to send photos/videos of yourself to another, you no longer have any power as to how they will be used which means they could end up being used to blackmail you, or all over the internet.
2. Do NOT give out personal information like your phone number, address, financial information, job address, etc.
3. Pay attention to severe mood swings/changes in conversation – pay attention to red flags! If they are pressuring you about anything, think twice about their motivations.
4. Try to verify their identity – do a background check if you can.
5. If you are going to meet up, ensure that it is in a public place and that someone knows where you are and check in with them.
If you or anyone you know have been the victim of blackmail, harassment, or other crimes, contact Equality Michigan Victim Services at 313-537-7000. For immediate help contact the local police. Learn more at the Equality Michigan website http://www.equalitymi.org.