How do you stay safe on dating apps? Toronto police and bar owners have some ideas

As Toronto police continue to investigate a series of homicides allegedly committed by a man who was active on dating apps, many people are asking how they can protect themselves as they try to meet prospective partners online.

Maple Leaf Tavern and Pinkertons start campaign that alert staff of patrons who are uncomfortable

Todd Morgan, owner of the Maple Leaf Tavern, serves up a drink at his bar. (CBC)

As Toronto police continue to investigate a series of homicides allegedly committed by a man who was active on dating apps, many people are asking how they can protect themselves as they try to meet prospective partners online.

But the case of Bruce McArthur, 66, who faces first-degree murder charges in connection with the disappearances of five men, mostly from the Gay Village, isn't the only thing making people look over their shoulders.

Police are also asking for the public's help in finding a suspect after a woman alleged that she was sexually assaulted by a man she met through an online dating site.

The incident happened near Finch Avenue East and Markham Road on Jan. 27 and police have issued a warrant for the arrest of a man who calls himself "Dante" on dating apps. He's wanted on charges of sexual assault and forcible confinement.

Police say those who want to protect themselves should: 

  • Get to know someone before meeting them in person for the first time.
  • Check to make sure their social media accounts are legitimate.
  •  Let a friend know where you're going or leave a note at your home saying where you're going and who you're meeting.

East end bars offering escape from bad dates

But because bars and restaurants are often where people meet on first dates, owners at some establishments are also looking for ways to help keep their patrons safe, rolling out a program that originated in Britain in 2017.

It was launched as "Ask for Angela," giving customers a discreet way to let restaurant staff know if they feel unsafe or threatened while on a date.

In the east end of the city, both the Maple Leaf Tavern and Pinkertons on Gerrard Street East started their own version.

Posters advertising the campaign have been popping up in washrooms in Toronto. 

Order a 'Diana'

Instead of asking for Angela, staff at the Maple Leaf Tavern say order a "Diana" and they will come to the table to help.

"If someone wants a taxi, transportation, we can pull them aside, keep them in a back of house area if they're uncomfortable and want to move on — or we'll keep an eye on the table," tavern owner Todd Morgan said.

Morgan says he wants to make sure people have a safe space to meet online partners when going on a date. (CBC)

"We realize we maybe have a bit of a responsibility internally, if someone is in an uncomfortable situation." 

Check-in program being developed for the Village

Similar initiatives have appeared across North America over the last year, with posters advertising the programs popping up in women's washrooms at restaurants and bars. 

Organizations are taking action in the Gay Village too. 

A not-for-profit organization in the Church and Wellesley neighbourhood is working on launching a safe check-in program, says Haran Vijayanathan, executive director of the Alliance for South Asian Aids Prevention (ASAAP).

"They can email us with some basic information so we have a way to contact them and they can contact us. If anything happens we can follow up with them," he said.

ASAAP's hope is that Torontonians who don't have friends or family they can check in with will use this service and also accelerate the missing persons process if something goes wrong. 

"I think everyone is fearful of what happened," said Vijayanathan.

Haran Vijayanathan speaks to CBC News about the Alliance for South Asian Aids Prevention check-in program. (CBC)

People who frequent the Village, like Andrew Stuart, say they plan to be more cautious when using apps to connect with new people. 

"Since it's happened, I think you just have to be more aware of what's going on. For me personally it's about getting to know people better before venturing into their space," he said. 

With files from Talia Ricci