Building a friendship with a pen pal either by email, online messaging, or snail mail can be one of the most rewarding things that you can do.
There are many reasons that people decide to be pen pals. It may be that they want to increase their circle of friends, learn a new language or want to learn more about the everyday way of life in a new culture.
However, before you rush off to find your new pen pal, there are several precautions that you should initially take to remain safe.
The likelihood of anything wrong happening to you by exchanging addresses, especially if you can validate the other person’s life in another country, is very low.
But that does not mean that you should throw caution to the wind.
Here are our top 5 safety tips:
Table of Contents
- 1 The No 1 Golden Rule to Avoid Being Scammed
- 2. Preserve Your Anonymity
- 3. Get to Know Your New Pen Pal Online First
- 4. Use a PO Box
- 5. Safe Snail Mail/Online Option Combination
1. The No 1 Golden Rule to Avoid Being Scammed
The number one golden rule is; do not send any money to anyone you have ever met online.
It seems simple enough, but it is incredible how many people break the golden rule and end up getting conned.
1.1. Never Send Money to Anyone
When I was young, my dad used to say to me, “where there is a scheme, there is a schemer” this is especially true online today.
There are lots of online websites where you can find pen pals, with the majority being genuine people looking to make new friends.
But lurking among them and hiding behind innocent-looking profiles are people with only one intention in mind.
This is to rip people off by making them believe that they are their friend or in love with you and then find ways to exploit this and steal your money.
They are not going to come around to your house and rob you. They will find some plausible excuse to ask you to do them a favor and send money to help them out.
They have a million different ways of doing this sickness, hospital bills, losing their job, love you, and need money for the flight tickets, etc.
These criminals are constantly dreaming up new ways of persuading you to part with your hard-earned cash.
1.2. Real Friends Don’t Ask for Money
If someone you have met online and are corresponding with either via messaging or snail mail asks you for money, then they are not your friend.
When faced with this situation, ask yourself this when the last time that a real friend, someone who you have known personally, asked you for money was?
I bet you are struggling to find a time when it occurred, and if you can, it was probably when you were younger and only for a few dollars for a taxi home or a pizza at the end of a night out.
Suppose you send money to someone that you have met online and get involved in any sort of financial transaction with them, such as giving them your bank account details or social security number, acting as a guarantor, or signing a credit agreement.
In that case, they are going to rob you.
If your new-found penfriend wants you to sign any official documents, don’t bear in mind what my old dad says, “where there is a scheme, there is a schemer”.
2. Preserve Your Anonymity
You now know that the number one golden rule is that you should never send any money to a pen pal or to someone you have met online to avoid being scammed.
The next thing to consider is your safety. You are more than likely to be ghosted by a great many people that you try to start a pen-pal friendship with than come to harm from a pen pal.
It is a sad fact that you will not receive a reply from a lot of your introductory letters or after a couple of emails/messages. But this does not mean that you should throw caution to the wind.
This is especially true if you are thinking of having a prisoner penfriend
To start getting new pen pals/ penfriends, you will usually need to find them online.
2.1. Screen Name/Profile/Username
The first thing that you need to do is think of an online screen name/profile/username that does not reveal your actual name.
This helps preserve your anonymity by making it very difficult to look up information about you by either online or offline means.
You are then going to create a Gmail account with this as your username.
This is your first level of security and is the backbone of preserving your anonymity online.
You will not use this Gmail address for anything else, such as personal emails signing up for newsletters, online banking, etc.
It is mainly for signing up with websites to find pen pals and to sign up for services such as skype to confirm your pen pal’s identity, which we will go into more detail in the next section.
It can also be used to correspond with a new pen pal/pen friend, and we show you in the last section how you can use Gmail to send snail mail to a pen pal safely.
When you sign up to Pen Pal World, Global Pen Friends. Reddit etc., in search of pen pals, you are now going to register with your Gmail account and create a screen name that reflects your Gmail address
2.2. Check Privacy Settings
Some websites, such as Pen Pal World, may let you sign up and use your screen name, which allows you to protect your identity.
You can then decide who and how much personal information you want to share and with who in your messages and emails.
However, some others may not, so you need to check the privacy settings to ensure you know how much of your personal information is shared and with who.
An excellent example of this is Facebook which gives you a lot of control over what information you share.
3. Get to Know Your New Pen Pal Online First
Most pen pals want to exchange letters by snail mail, but before you give out your name and address, you should spend a little time getting to know your potential pen pals first.
Once you are confident that they are who they say they are and come across as genuine, then you can move things on to the next level and start exchanging names and addresses.
When getting to know your new pen pal, they are probably going to start to want to know more personal information about you.
This is where you can start to drip-feed your private information to them.
You can safely reveal your first name, state, and city to start with. Then see how much they give feedback to you.
3.1. Email and Messaging
The first step to start building your relationship with your new penfriend should be by either using the online messaging function, which a lot of the more popular websites to find pen pals have.
If you are using Reddit, then you can send direct messages.
If these options are unavailable, then this is where that that Gmail address with your screen name that you have created comes in handy.
3.2. Check out their Online Identity
You should already be exchanging correspondences via messages and email and sharing your first name and the city that you live in.
This is where a little strategy comes in if they have outright asked you for your full name and address.
Which is quite natural to people in some cultures. Then just gently deflect the question and turn it to your advantage.
Send your reply and say sure but I would like to get to know you a little better first. Ask them for their full name and if they are on any social media such as Facebook or Instagram.
This is an excellent way of learning about a person, and fake accounts stick out like a sore thumb.
Unless they are in an impoverished part of the world, this should not be a problem for them to give it to you.
If they can’t or won’t, they may be as cautious as you, but it may start to ring a few alarm bells.
It is at this point where you decide to persevere and try and find a little more about them or call it a day and maybe look for someone more suitable.
3.3. Grabify IP Logger
Your potential pen pal tells you that they are French and live in Paris or maybe from Quezon City in the Philippines if you are paranoid or curious, how can you verify this?
The answer is to use a free service called Grabify iP is an IP logger, which sounds complicated, but it really isn’t. simply paste a URL from a YouTube video that you think your friend would like and send it to them.
Depending upon their browser, they may be presented with a window that says gratify wants to redirect them to YouTube, or it may take them straight there.
It doesn’t matter; as soon as they click on the link, you have their details.
What’s even better is if they are using a VPN, it tells you they are, so you can start to wonder what they have got to hide. and why are they using a VPN to tell me that they are living in this city?
For those who are not familiar with a VPN, it is called a Virtual Private Network and is usually a paid-for service that, in simple terms, hides your actual IP address.
You can adjust its settings so that you appear to be online from a specific country and even choose one of the larger cities in that country.
If you have followed all the above tips and you are still a little wary, suggest to your friend that you have a quick Skype chat to get to know each other.
If your friend has told you that they are a blonde 32-year-old female from Sweden who is 5 foot 4 inches tall and into swimming and hiking, and also enjoys cooking oriental food.
That’s a pretty hard thing to fake in a skype chat. If they are reluctant to do it, if nothing else, it opens up more questions for you to ask about why the next time you get in contact with them.
4. Use a PO Box
The easiest way to receive snail mail from pen friends that protects your privacy is with a PO Box. In the U.S., they can cost as little as 19 dollars for six months, rising to 75 dollars depending on which state you live in.
The box is located inside the post office and is accessible only with a key or combination code.
You can also have your mail addressed to a pseudonym at your PO box, which helps to retain your anonymity and preserve your privacy.
If you live in the UK, these are a lot more expensive, and you are looking at around £270.00 a year.
5. Safe Snail Mail/Online Option Combination
For most people, the whole enjoyment of having a pen pal is the sending and receiving of handwritten letters.
There is something about writing a letter by hand that is far more personal and intimate than typing or texting.
If you use a fountain pen, then this adds an extra level of enjoyment to the whole process, which is why many fountain pen users have pen friends.
If you have not used a fountain pen, then check out our beginner’s guide to fountain pens which will help you get started.
For those of you who would like to keep your address private and use snail mail but can’t afford a PO Box, we have a solution for you.
Like all things in life, it is a compromise and not perfect, but it is a way that you can send and receive handwritten letters to your pen pal without giving out your home address.
It works by using a combination of handwritten letters, a smartphone, and, yes, you guessed it, that all-important Gmail address that we told you earlier to create and use as the backbone to preserve your anonymity online.
Simply carry out the following steps:
- Create your Gmail anonymous profile if you have not already done so.
- Write a letter to your pen pal explaining that you want to correspond with them by written letters but want to share them by email to start with as you are a very shy and private individual who does not feel comfortable sharing their address. You can point out that it allows you both to practice your writing skills and is more personal than just messaging.
- If you are corresponding with someone who speaks a different language, then write it in their language. (Use Google translate to start with until you become more proficient)
- Set up a Gmail on your phone using the Gmail app with your anonymous profile. Don’t use any other Gmail addresses in the app, just your screen name.
- Use your phone to take a photo of your letter. You can then share it by mail with your pen pal.
- Agree on a minimum wait time before replying to your penfriend. This serves two purposes it creates a sense of anticipation, like waiting for a letter in the post. It gives you more time to reply to each other. We all have busy lives, and it takes the pressure off, which is more likely to keep the relationship going. You will have also done more things in this wait time, giving you something to write about.
- Buy good quality paper for your printer. I like ivory at either 100 or 12gsm.
- Upload the photo that you have received from your pen pal to https://resizeimage.net/
- Adjust your image depending on the size of the received photo bearing in mind that:
Equivalent A4 paper dimensions in pixels at 300 DPI and 72 DPI, respectively, are: 2480 pixels x 3508 pixels (print resolution) and 595 pixels x 842 pixels (screen resolution)
Then download and print on the good quality paper that you bought earlier, sit down with a nice cup of coffee, and enjoy reading the latest letter from your penfriend.
That’s all there is to it, and it is a far more pleasurable way of corresponding. If you follow our top 5 safety tips, it will keep you safe and let you concentrate on making new friends, which is really what having a pen pal is all about.
Since writing this guide, we have now created Pen Pal Safety – A Guide for Parents & Children, which has a lot more specific advice on how to keep your children safe to enjoy the benefits of having a pen pal.
Also, The National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) website provides tips on how to stay safe online and protect personal information.