PROTECTION

Nobody knows how dangerous online dating really is—and dating sites won’t talk about it

We’re dating differently now.

Often on multiple apps at once, users can swipe through dozens of profiles every minute and plan multiple dates, whether in hopes of a love match or a hook-up. Decisions to meet arise from limited information: A convenient location; a sultry glance captured in pixels; a mutual interest in “banter.” In 2014, Tinder users were spending as long as 90 minutes a day on the site.

But fake profiles abound, sexual predators use the sites, and some common online dating behavior—like meeting alone after scant acquaintance, sharing personal information, and using geolocation—puts users at risk. Dating companies are being pushed to better protect users, but some seem reluctant to do more— or even to talk about whether there’s a problem.

John Leech thinks the situation is new, and dangerous. A local council member in Manchester, in the north of England, Leech this year launched a campaign to make online dating companies commit to keeping their users safer. Over the past four years, 17 people in the Greater Manchester area have reported being raped after using one of two apps, Grindr and Tinder, according to police statistics obtained by Leech through a freedom of information request. A total of 58 people were victims of online dating-related crimes in those four years, some of them sexual. (That’s slightly more than one a month. For context, in 2012 the area had an overall average of 243 sexual assaults and rapes every month.)

Many apps offer a page of advice for safe dating. But Leech wants other protections, like giving users alerts about potential risks before they ever begin chatting with strangers. Is this scaremongering, or is online dating truly putting users in danger?

Warning signs

The trouble is that statistics on crimes linked to online dating are sparse. In 2016, the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) released findings on data from police forces around the country. There are some big gaps. Not all the forces collect data specific to dating apps. Not all people who report attacks mention whether an app was involved. Victims, as well as perpetrators, hide crimes: Only an estimated 17% of all rapes, app-linked or not, are reported to police, the NCA said.

Nevertheless, while app-related assaults were still rare, they were rising fast enough for the NCA to flag the emergence of “a new type of sexual offender.” Usually a man, he’s less likely than other sexual offenders to have committed any kind of crime before, but instead exploits the “ease of access and arm-chair approach” to meeting people that dating sites enable.

Of course, sexual assaults related to online dating may be on the rise just because online dating itself is on the rise. But here’s one telling, albeit only suggestive, comparison: The Pew Research Center found that between 2008 and 2013 the proportion of American adults using dating services tripled. In Britain, attacks related to online dating increased almost six-fold over roughly the same period. If the US and UK are experiencing the same trends, then online dating is indeed becoming more dangerous.

Then again, they may not be experiencing the same trends. In the US, overall incidents of sexual violence have fallen by 63% since 1993, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. By contrast, the UK’s Office for National Statistics has recorded an increase in sexual assaults since 2012. However, it puts most of that down to increased reporting and better recording by the police. Better reporting, therefore, might also partly explain why internet dating assaults have increased in the UK.

All the same, the NCA noted that the incidents had a lot in common. Most notably, 72% were carried out in the home of either the victim or the perpetrator, and 41% of the dates that led to assaults started at home, rather than moving there after an initial meeting somewhere else. That’s despite dating advice that stresses the importance of meeting new people in public.

Here’s another data fragment. A 2016 study of 666 students in Hong Kong found that about half used dating apps, and those who did were twice as likely as non-users to suffer “sexual abuse” of some kind (defined on a scale that included, for example, being coerced into unprotected sex, and rape).

The study didn’t prove that apps led to abuse, the authors wrote, but they found the association “alarming.” They hypothesized that app users might expose themselves more to people who are sexually coercive. The online environment could also lull users into thinking they know someone, and therefore making themselves vulnerable.

To date, much of the research on online dating has been conducted by dating companies themselves. In the US, the FBI collects data about so-called romance fraud and about online “sexploitation,” but data about physical assault linked to dating sites is scant. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, conducted by the US government, last collected data in 2011 and will publish an update this year, but doesn’t ask questions about online dating.

Taking care

In the absence of hard data, it’s anecdotes that shape the conversation about online dating safety.

In 2016 Stephen Port was convicted in the UK of killing four young men he met on the gay dating app Grindr. In 2011 Match.com began screening US members against a database of known sex offenders, after a woman who said she had been raped brought a class-action lawsuit against the site. In the UK, Match was also implicated in the case of serial rapist Jason Lawrence, who in 2016 was convicted of raping or assaulting seven women he met on the site, after contacting thousands.

Not all countries in which sites operate have databases such as Match’s, however, and even those that exist tend to have incomplete data. Gregory Dickson, the judge in the Jason Lawrence case, used his in-court comments to call for a system of “automatic referral to the police,” or another agency, when complaints are made to dating companies. Women had flagged Lawrence to the site, but no single entity had been able to “join the dots” and prevent crimes taking place, he said.

Match.com didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment. In an article in 2013 for Consumers Digest, Mandy Ginsberg, Match’s CEO, is quoted as saying: “Match.com is no different than society. If you go out to a bar and meet someone that you don’t know, you should be careful.”

But those who want to see the industry do more point out that online dating is different from society in one important sense: Users are paying to be there. Annual revenue from dating apps is $3 billion in the US alone.

“Of course it is impossible to be certain that safety alerts would make people safer without introducing them and seeing whether it reduced the number of incidents!” John Leech wrote in an email. But he said there was more companies could do to protect users. For instance, he said, they could insist that a dating profile be linked to other social media as a form of identity verification. (Some apps, including Tinder, already make this mandatory. Others, including Grindr, do not.)

“Tinder and Grindr should not be let off the hook over such a serious and shocking lapse in care to their users,” Leech wrote on his website. He also wrote to the two companies to express his concern. Tinder never replied to his letter, Leech told me, while Grindr replied saying that it has pages about safety on its website. (It does have a “safety tips” page, which is buried several levels deep on the site, inside one of the help sections on how to use the app. The page is even harder to reach from within the app itself.)

Tony Neate, CEO of Get Safe Online, a UK-based non-profit, said that actual attacks are only part of the picture. Online dating is also the source for financial and other scams that cause emotional trauma.

“I honestly believe there is a lot more that the online dating companies can do” to protect users, Neate said, such as using phone calls or Skype to verify users’ identities. It’s surprising that more companies don’t have senior managers whose job is to concentrate on user safety, he said, and that they aren’t more transparent with their data—for example on numbers of reported incidents. No dating company has ever approached his organization for a conversation about safety, he said, and when he’s talked to them he’s found them “very defensive” on the issue.

An adequate response?

So what are dating companies doing, and is it enough?

Many dating apps offer advice somewhere on their websites on how to stay safe while online and offline. Tinder stresses the need to meet and stay in a public place, for example, while Grindr suggests its users not rush into real-world meetings and always let friends know where they’re going. A spokesperson for Grindr told the Manchester Evening News that the platform “is committed to creating a safe environment through a system of digital and human screening tools, while also encouraging users to report suspicious and threatening activities.”

Most sites also provide a way for users to report inappropriate or threatening behavior. They say they block problem users and delete fake profiles.

But when pressed, dating companies seem unwilling to talk about safety in much detail.

Grindr didn’t respond to a request for comment or details about its screening tools. A spokesperson for Tinder said that the company takes its users’ safety “very seriously,” encouraging them to be vigilant, report suspicious activity, and pay attention to the company’s online safety recommendations. But, in an echo of Match’s CEO, the spokesperson also dismissed the idea that online dating is inherently riskier than society at large. “Given our scale, we are no more immune to people with bad intentions than any other place where people meet, whether it’s a pub, a bookstore, or on social media,” the spokesperson said. As we’ve seen, there are no data to back up this claim.

Bumble, a dating app predicated on putting women more in charge of online interaction, claims on its site that “Connecting has never been more fun, safe, or awesome.” The site, however, has no safety advice for dating that I could find, and I exchanged emails with Bumble’s PR team for weeks without the company ever providing comment.

One thing companies certainly can do is try to weed out users with bad intentions. OkCupid, a site owned by the Match Group—which also owns Tinder, Match.com and other dating brands—has 34 moderation and support staff who sift profiles for non-human behavior, scams, and abuse, according to a recent blog post from the company. The site has “zero tolerance” towards harassment, wrote Alice Goguen Hunsberger, OkCupid’s director of customer experience. “If someone makes one of our users feel uncomfortable or unwelcome, we ban them,” she wrote.

OkCupid, JDate, and the Match Group as a whole didn’t respond to further requests for comment.

Seeds of change

There are signs, despite their reticence to talk about it, that dating apps are beginning to take calls like Leech’s more seriously.

Saskia Garner, policy officer for personal safety at the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, a UK non-governmental organization that works to combat violence and aggression, said dating sites have approached the trust for help with their safety policy. She said the trust had recently undertaken work with one site, though wouldn’t name it.

Match.com paid for a survey of more than 2,000 adults conducted for the trust by YouGov in February 2017, which found that 37% of them had felt concerned for their personal safety when meeting up with someone from a dating site. More than half of those never reported it to the company. At the time of Jason Lawrence’s conviction, Match said it had worked with the Suzy Lamplugh Trust to strengthen internal safety processes. One dating company also told me that it would be making an announcement on the issue soon, but couldn’t talk about it yet.

Most advice about safety, however, puts the onus firmly on the user. The NCA recommends people follow the dating safety policy laid out by Get Safe Online, which includes being cautious with personal data, and always meeting in public. And for most people, the NCA notes, online dating is safe.

It’s also growing. Dating site eHarmony predicts that by 2030, more couples will meet online than off. And it’s evolving: Sean Rad, founder of Tinder, said in February that augmented reality could mean a future where app users could get information on a person’s dating profile by pointing a phone at them, Pokemon Go-style.

Such an ability to monitor people “in real life” could have its own safety implications. Geolocation, which many apps use, has already caused problems: In 2014 Grindr turned off geolocation in some countries that are hostile to homosexuality, after a tip-off that the app was being used in Russia and other countries to hunt out gay men.

For most people, online relationships will have only minor unpleasant moments. The Pew Research Center found that 41% of 18- to 29-year-olds surveyed said they had unfriended or blocked someone “who was flirting in a way that made [them] feel uncomfortable” online. Real violence is most certainly an aberration rather than the rule.

But as the internet continues to mold the global culture of romance, users may have to get more careful. And sites could be compelled to confront the darker side of their industry, and provide more robust armor against it.

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