Winnipeg police are warning people to use caution when online dating due to a spike in sexual assaults.

Const. Tammy Skrabek said Friday investigators in the sex crimes unit are dealing with an increase in the number of sexual assault investigations specifically related to online dating.

She said most of the victims are women.

“Last year they reported 24 or 25 files that they reviewed as well as the year before,” said Skrabek. “This year they’re already surpassing that amount. They’re looking at 27 files that they’re currently investigating or have investigated this year — so that’s a significant increase.

“The types of assaults are somewhat common — it’s people overstepping, it’s people being too forceful and really not listening to when they’re being told no.”

Skrabek said charges have been laid in at least three cases so far this year.

The remainder of the investigations remain open.

Skrabek said the cases can be complicated for officers to investigate.

“You’re looking at victims, witnesses, where it happened — is there a scene, isn’t there a scene. They’re very difficult to actually prove. In some cases, it comes down to he said she said and it takes a lot of extra investigation,” said Skrabek. “You’re looking at who did they talk to, were text messages sent, emails, finding that information and following up on it.”

Police aren’t sure exactly what’s behind the increase but have a few theories.

“It could be that people are more comfortable reporting to police because as we see an increase in users in any sort of technology, we’re seeing an increase in those crimes being reported down the line,” said Skrabek. “I think it takes a period of time for people to feel comfortable to say, ‘yes I used online dating and yes I was the victim of an assault’ and remove that portion of embarrassment from the equation.”

Skrabek said online dating can remove the element of taking the time to get to know a person before meeting them face to face.

“Now you’re meeting someone based on what they’ve told you which may or may not be factual,” she said. “Most of the cases are happening early on, at the first meeting or perhaps even at the second, but they’ve known each for a small amount of time.”

Police said there are some preventative measures you can take to help stay safe:

  • use a credible online site; most require a user fee
  • do some research; vet the sites you plan to use
  • never disclose private information through online dating sites
  • make sure initial meetings are in a public place
  • don’t meet someone alone, if you do, tell a friend or family member who you’re meeting and include the person’s contact information and a screenshot of the individual’s profile
  • set up a safety check-in with someone you trust after you meet your date
  • be wary of requests for money
  • follow your instincts; if it feels wrong, it probably is (Source: Winnipeg Police Service)

Police also reminded people that in emergency situations, sexual assault can be reported through 911 and otherwise, victims can call 204-986-2222 to report. They also said resources for victims or those who know a victim are available online

In Manitoba, victims age 16 or older who do not wish to report to police can submit a third party report through Klinic Community Health. More information is available on the Klinic website.