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: 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. 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. For context, in the area had an overall average of 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. 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: Of course, sexual assaults related to online dating may be on the rise just because online dating itself is on the rise.
The Pew Research Center found that between and 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. 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. 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 Stephen Port was convicted in the UK of killing four young men he met on the gay dating app Grindr.
In the UK, Match was also implicated in the case of serial rapist Jason Lawrence, who in was convicted of raping or assaulting seven women he met on the site, after contacting thousands. Users are paying to be there. 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. 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.
The page is even harder to reach from within the app itself. Online dating is also the source for financial and other scams that cause emotional trauma.
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. They say they block problem users and delete fake profiles. But when pressed, dating companies seem unwilling to talk about safety in much detail.
One thing companies certainly can do is try to weed out users with bad intentions. 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. More than half of those never reported it to the company.
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. Dating site eHarmony predicts that by , more couples will meet online than off. Geolocation, which many apps use, has already caused problems: In 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. 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.