(ABC4) – While online dating isn’t a new trend, the use of virtual means to make a meaningful connection has surged in popularity in the pandemic age.

That isn’t always a good thing. A relationship that may seem innocent and potentially substantial in cyberspace can quickly turn catastrophic and dangerous in real life.

In Utah, it is believed that one in three women will suffer as the victim of an act of sexual violence at some point in their lives, according to the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault (UCASA). The Coalition’s Executive Director, Liliana Olver-Arbon, believes that the prevalence of online dating and its popularity at the local level may contribute to this figure, which exceeds the national average of one in four.

“I think a part of the cases that we see are from online dating,” Olver-Arbon explains to ABC4.com. “I think right now with Covid, there’s a lot more of those online relationships building and so we’re seeing a lot more of that.”

The situation has become severe enough that researchers at a local university have been building data and creating findings on a three-year-long study on rapes associated with dating apps. The research is expected to be released after the new year.

Folks like Olver-Arbon, and Julie Spira, who has built a career and reputation as a nationally-recognized ‘Cyber Dating Expert,’ agree that some of the best ways to avoid an in-person meetup that goes horribly and tragically wrong are to take the proper precautions.

Taking things slowly can prevent a lot of issues, according to Spira.

“I think it’s important to take the time to get to know someone and not to rush into an instant relationship. When you’re looking for someone online, you need to be specific about the type of relationship you’re looking for,” Spira states. “It’s not necessary to do a full background search, but it is important to ask questions to make sure that you feel safe and comfortable.”

Spira’s recommendation is if you make a connection on your phone, use that same phone to do a virtual first date either on Zoom or FaceTime. A bit of additional research on the person can go a long way as well. It shouldn’t feel abnormal or intrusive, she says, to look up the person on social media to see if you have any mutual friends. If you do, take the next step and ask those mutual contacts about the person to get additional insight.

If enough green flags are in place for an in-person meet-up, it’s important to do so with a continued high level of caution. Spira suggests meeting for a first date during the daylight hours in a public area.

She also says telling someone you trust about the date is always a good idea.

“If you’re dating, and you’re single, find one of your best friends every time and I mean, every time that you go out on a date with someone, you say, I’m meeting ‘Jeff from a dating app, here’s his phone number that he gave me that I’ve been texting him with, and this is the cafe that we’re going to, and I will text you during a bathroom break to let you know that I’m okay,” Spira illustrates.

Chances are if you hit it off with someone you meet online, more likely than not, things won’t turn dangerous, according to Spira. However, doing everything possible to avoid the possibility of a nightmare situation is essential.

On the other hand, even if you don’t feel any trepidation to meeting someone from a dating app or virtual setting, being aware of the other person’s feelings is critical, especially when to comes to consent.

“One of the biggest messages from organizations that work with sexual assault victims is that everyday consent is critical, even in these online relationships that are happening,” Olver-Arbon says. “So it’s important that we learn what consent is, and that we model that.”

In simple terms, consent is an ongoing process of discussing and understanding the boundaries of another. It’s important for everyone involved that consent can be withdrawn at any time during a romantic encounter. A newer way to understand consent is called ‘enthusiastic consent’ which means looking for a ‘yes’ rather than the absence of a ‘no.’

Understanding consent, boundaries, and the power of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ can prevent heartache and disaster when it comes to an online meetup that turns amorous.

“It’s respecting people through this online connection,” Olver-Arbon summarizes. “With all of the things that we’re hearing and seeing, boundaries and consent are critical in those types of relationships as well. I think it’s always about practicing that consent through these types of relationships.”

It could be wise to consider and practice the above the next time you swipe right.