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The Empowering Internet Safety Guide for Women: Part 4 - Internet And The Real World

The mountain of cases that have been made public since the emergence of the #MeToo movement point to a heartbreaking reality: women are not safe, either in real life or online. In the fourth part of this series, we give you some advice to stay safe In Real Life.

In this third part of the series on internet safety, VPNMentor shares tips and advice on how to stay safe while using online dating apps and platforms. This new way of meeting people and engaging in relationships has its own safety pitfalls, but there are ways in which you can protect yourself.

IRL (In Real Life) Attacks 

Obviously, attacks on women don’t just happen online. Often, attacks spill over to the real world, with perpetrators using technology to help them stalk and abuse their victims. In fact, a survey of victim aid providers revealed that 79% dealt with victims who had been surveilled using social media.

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Sometimes perpetrators are people we know, like a controlling partner. Other times, attacks are crimes of opportunity, like stealing a cell phone, or taking advantage of someone who’s simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In any case, from giving a friend the heads up as to where you’ll be, to encrypting the data on your mobile devices, and keeping your passwords secure, there are precautions you can take to keep yourself safe.

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How to Safely Use a Ridesharing App 

Back in 2014, a woman in New Delhi was raped by her ride sharing app driver. After it was revealed that the driver had a decade-long criminal record that included sexual assault, some were calling for the ridesharing app to be banned altogether.

After a slew of bad press, the ride sharing company now has a new CEO at the reigns. And it looks like the company is finally ready to take passenger safety seriously by rolling out some new initiatives.  

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The main one that has already been implemented allows you to share your ride with up to five trusted contacts. This means your friends can follow along during your trip and see that you arrived at your destination. If you want, you can also set the trusted contacts feature so that it’s only enabled for nighttime rides.

Trusted contacts allows you to send your route and estimated time of arrival to a friend. These messages include the car’s make and model, the license plate number, and a photo of the driver.  

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Other companies also have a 911 feature in the works that will allow you to call emergency services with a click of a button, and which automatically provides them with your location in real time. Other initiatives include driver background checks and scans of new DUI and criminal offenses that can be checked against their list of drivers.

In the meantime, here are a few steps you can take yourself in order to stay safe.

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5 Ways to Protect Yourself While Using a Ridesharing App

1. Make Sure You’re Getting into the Right Car

Before hitting the road, check the car’s license plate, make and model, and the driver’s name and photo to make sure everything matches up.

2. Don’t Let Your Driver Know if Your Pick-up Point or Destination is Your Home or Place of Work

In fact, if it is, you might want to make a little small talk so you can slip in a white lie to make him think otherwise. For instance, if he asks how you’re doing, you can say “great, excited to be going out to meet friends.” Another option is to give a nearby location as your destination, rather than your exact address, and walk an extra block.

3. Check the Driver’s Reviews

One nice feature of ridesharing apps is they allow riders to rate their drivers. If yours has bad reviews, cancel the ride and call another one. To keep from having to wait too long, have a couple of apps already installed on your phone so you can use the one that’ll most quickly get you a reputable driver.

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4. Track Your Route

If you’re familiar with the area you’re traveling in, you’ll notice if the driver is going the wrong way. But if you don’t, open the map app on your phone and track your route to make sure you’re headed toward the destination you requested. If the route looks strange, speak up.  

5. If Something Doesn’t Feel Right, Get Out

Yes, you may be late for your appointment, and you may be out a few dollars, but if you feel unsafe, ask the driver to pull over and get out of the car. Too often women put themselves in unsafe situations because they think following their gut will lead to awkwardness. Screw that.

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4 Ways to Protect Your Phone If It Gets Lost or Stolen

For many of us, it’s as if our whole lives are on our phones. Our phones contain our contacts, our photos, and the apps we use to navigate, keep up with the news, organize our work and personal schedules, and stay connected with friends and family; it’s a lot of personal information we don’t want in the hands of some stranger. So, what to if your phone gets lost or stolen? Fortunately, there are a few simple steps you can take to protect yourself if your phone gets lost or stolen.

1. Password Protect Your Phone 

In order to keep someone from immediately gaining access to the contents of your phone once it’s in their possession, it’s best to already have a password set.

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The exact way to set a password will vary depending on your device, but for an Android, you’ll probably have to go to Settings>Security>Screen lock type. Here you can choose to unlock your phone by using a pattern, pin, or password.

A password is the most secure option, but it’s also the most annoying to have to input every time you want to glance at your Facebook notifications. You might also have the option to set your phone so it will only open with your fingerprint.

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Another cool feature is the smart lock. If you use this, your lock function won’t kick in while your phone is on you, if you’re at certain locations (e.g. your home), or if you’re near other trusted devices. Some phones will even give you voice and facial recognition options.

2. Locate Your Phone

One of the great things about having a GPS on your phone is that if it goes missing, you can track where it is. However, in order for this feature to work, you need to set it up in advance.

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If you have an Android, you have a couple of options. Some devices, like Samsung, have this feature built in – although in order to access it you have to create a Samsung account. By enabling the feature, you’ll be able to locate your phone by going to https://findmymobile.samsung.com/ from a different device and logging in. Another option is to download the Find My Device app from the Google Play Store. This app works the same way as Samsung’s and only requires you to have a Google account. Plus, if you’ve just misplaced your phone somewhere around the house, it has the ability to make it ring, even if your phone is set to silent. Just go to https://myaccount.google.com/intro/find-your-phone, sign in, and you’ll be able to see your phone’s location on a map. From there you’ll also be able to reset your phone’s password.

Bear in mind, however, that if you have an Android, you’ll only be able to locate your device if your location services are enabled and you’re connected to the internet. A smart thief will know to disable those functions so you can’t track where he – and your phone – are.

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If you have an iPhone, you’ll need to download the Find My iPhone app. Once it’s installed, you’ll be able to locate your device on a map by going to https://www.icloud.com/#find and signing into the iCloud.

There you can also put your phone into Lost Mode, which will lock it. Lost Model also lets you set a message to the locked screen, so if your phone is simply lost, you can write something like, “Lost phone. Please call 212-555-1234 to return.” Or, if you know your phone has been stolen, you can write something like, “You suck.”    

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3. Erase Your Data

This is the nuclear option. If you’re sure you’re not getting your phone back, you can use the Find My Device/Find My iPhone apps to remotely erase all the data on your phone, so even if the thief manages to break through your password protections, they won’t be able to access your personal information.

Bear in mind that when you do this, since all your personal accounts will be deleted, you lose your ability to track your phone remotely.

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That said, your phone could still be getting service from your wireless carrier, meaning whoever has it could be making calls from your number and using your data plan. To cut them off, call your service provider and let them know your phone has been stolen.

Knowing you might have to one day erase your phone data is another great reason to backup your phone’s contents (which you should really be doing anyway). If you have an Android, the easiest way to backup your data is to use the Google cloud. If you have an iPhone, use the iCloud.

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But what if you didn’t have the foresight to install the Find My Device/Find My iPhone apps, and now you can’t change your passwords, lock your phone, or erase your data remotely? In that case you should…

4. Change the Passwords for All Your Apps

Make a list of all the apps you have on your phone that require passwords, get onto another device, and start changing your passwords. This will likely include your email, social media accounts, bank accounts, and app stores.

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Staying Safe on Meetup.com 

One of the amazing things about the internet is that it can bring together total strangers who have something in common, but would never have found each other otherwise.

A great way to do this is through the website Meetup.com, which lets users create and join events and activities based on themes that interest them. Popular categories for meetups include film, health and wellness, LGBTQ, and pets. It’s a fantastic way to make new friends and cultivate your interests.

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But didn’t your mom always tell you not to talk to strangers? Was she really onto something, or just being paranoid?

A little of both. You should absolutely get yourself out there and take a big bite out of life… but also, take some precautions.

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3 Ways to Protect Yourself on Meetup.com 

1. Don’t Include Too Much Personal Information in Your Profile

Be aware that your profile page is completely accessible to anyone with internet, so only include information you’re comfortable being totally public.

If you have a passion for food, and can’t wait to find culinary meetups in your town, definitely mention the new taco truck you’re totally obsessed with. But don’t say it’s located right outside your building on 333 Main Street, where you live in apartment 4D – which by the way doesn’t have a deadbolt.

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Or if you’re looking for family meetups, go ahead and write that you have a ten year old and six year old, but don’t include that their names are Timmy and Sue, and that they go to Lincoln Elementary, from which they usually walk home alone at 2:30 pm.

2. Get to Know People IRL Before Communicating One-on-one 

Meetup has an email forwarding system, so you can get messages from members sent to your email without them having your actual email address.

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But even so, if you’re just not interested in people contacting you before meeting and hitting it off in real life, you can choose to block messages from users and only receive messages from event organizers. Just go to your account and click Settings>Privacy.  

From there you can choose whether you want your groups or interests listed on your profile. You can also select who can contact you on Meetup – whether that just be organizers, members of your meetups, or anyone on the website.

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3. Let a Friend Know Where You’re Going 

For any situation in which you’re going out to meet strangers, it’s good practice to tell a friend where you’re going, and set a time to check in with them so they know you got home safe. Also, if the meetup involves drinks, never leave yours unattended.

Preventing Intimate Partner Violence 

Intimate partner violence (IPV) affects nearly one third of American women. Although technology can provide tools for victims (e.g. for collecting evidence against an abuser), it can also unfortunately be used by perpetrators. That’s because control is an integral element on IPV, and the misuse of technology can give abusers a means of exerting control over their victims.

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According to a recent study, while many perpetrators use technology specifically designed for surveillance, it is far more common to repurpose other types of apps in order to achieve the same goals. Some of those used include find my phone apps, and family tracking and child monitoring apps.

The problem with this is that advocates against IPV can’t go after the companies that manufacture these apps, and app stores can’t block them, as most of the time, they’re used for perfectly legitimate purposes.

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Many of these apps allow abusers to track their victim’s location, read their messages by having them forwarded to a different device, and even watch and listen to them remotely by activating the phone’s camera and microphone.

As mentioned above, there are also apps explicitly marketed for nonconsensual surveillance. While it’s rare to find these in a legitimate app store, there are plenty that can be found in other corners of the internet. And even though most phones come with a default setting that blocks off-store apps, guides for overriding it can easily be found online.

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One of the most nefarious elements of these type of apps is that they can usually be configured so the app icon is hidden, thus making it nearly impossible for the victim to detect it on their phone.

You might think the solution would then be to scan the phone for spyware, but unfortunately, even some of the biggest names in the industry have proven largely ineffective at detecting these apps.

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So what can you do to protect yourself?

3 Ways to Keep an Abusive Partner from Surveilling You 

1. Keep Your Phone on You at All Times

Almost all the apps studied require that the abuser physically have access to the victim’s phone at least once.

2. Be Cautious Using Any Phone You Didn’t Obtain Yourself

Abusers with a lot of control over their victims often control their money too – and so end up being the ones to purchase their phone. In these cases not only can they pre-install dual purpose apps, but with a little tech savvy, they can can even root the device, giving them the ability to install the most nefarious off-store apps. There are even companies that will sell phones that are already rooted, or that have surveillance software pre-installed.

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3. Password Protect Your Phone, and Don’t Share Your Password with Anyone

As mentioned above, having a password to keep your phone locked is the first line of defense in keeping its contents secure. If you suspect your partner is accessing your device, immediately change your password. Make it long and complex, and make sure not to use elements they might be able to guess, like your birthday or pet’s name.

That said, we’re not naive, and can’t ignore the reality that many victims of IPV are coerced into revealing their passwords or “allowing” these dangerous apps to be installed on their phones.  

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Whether or not you’re in the position to safeguard your device, if you are the victim of IPV, there are resources that can help you get out. These are just a few of the organizations that have made helping victims their mission:

National Network to End Domestic Violence
The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 
Family and Youth Services Bureau

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SOS Apps 

In general, it’s a good idea to have an emergency app on your phone, just in case. These let you notify friends or family when you’re feeling unsafe, and/or contact emergency services.

Some types of phones have these features built in, so it’s worth checking to see if yours does.  If not, check out these apps, all of which are available for both Android and iOS. 

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ICE

The name stands for In Case of Emergency, allows you to send a message and your GPS location to selected contacts when you want your friends or family to keep tabs on your whereabouts. You can also set the message to be delayed, so say, if you don’t come back from your hike by nightfall, that’s when they’ll get the message. 

React Mobile

It does the same thing as ICE, but also has an SOS Help Me button that notifies your pre-chosen contacts via email and text, and if you choose, posts a message to Facebook and Twitter. At the same time, the app automatically contacts local emergency services.  

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Siren GPS

This app won’t contact your friends and family, but with a push of a button, will alert emergency services and provide them with your location. You can also set up a personal profile with relevant information that is then passed on to the authorities in case of emergency. This can include medical conditions and emergency contact info.  The app also gives you the option of calling the fire department, an ambulance, or the police.

You can also show certain information on your lock screen to be used in case of a situation in which you’re unable to give information about yourself to emergency services. For instance, you can write something like, “In case of emergency, call [name of your partner]” and then write their phone number. Or, if you have a specific medical issue – like a severe allergy or epilepsy – you can include pertinent information there.

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How to set a lock screen message will vary depending on what model phone you have.

Conclusion

Technology and the internet play a big part in our lives both in good ways and in bad. As women, we are targeted online for many different reasons, but that does not mean we should disengage or disconnect.

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Our hope is that this guide empowers you to protect and defend yourself online and in person and that the tools we provide will help you to do so.

If you found this guide helpful in any way, please share it with others so more women can learn how to stay safe, both on and off the web.

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* Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

Do you have tips and advice on how to stay safe online or IRL? Click here to send a 400 word article and become a part of our international pool of collaborators!

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For more articles on how to stay safe online, click on these:
The Empowering Internet Safety Guide for Women. Part 1 - Social Media
The Empowering Internet Safety Guide for Women: Part 2 - Work Environment 
The Empowering Internet Safety Guide for Women: Part 3 - Dating Online

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