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Sex Offenders Are Using Dating Apps, A New Report Shows, So Here's How To Stay Safe

Whenever you use a dating app, there’s an inherent risk your match won't be exactly who they say they are. It isn't uncommon to discover the person you've been messaging is already in a relationship, or that they claim to value kindness in their profile but insult the waiter on your first date over something silly. Even more concerning, however, is that there are also sex offenders using dating apps, according to a new report by Columbia Journalism Investigations (CJI), BuzzFeed, and ProPublica, and you could match with one without realizing.

If you haven't ever actually read through the terms of use for your dating apps, no one would blame you. But if the idea of a sex offender using a dating app shocks you, it's worth taking a look at your favorite app's terms of service. Tucked in the middle of Tinder’s terms and conditions comes the following statement: “You are solely responsible for your interactions with other users. You understand that Tinder does not conduct criminal background checks on its users or otherwise inquire into the background of its users.” Other dating apps include similar warnings. Hinge’s terms of use state, “Hinge does not conduct criminal background or identity verification checks on its users,” adding a suggestion to “use your best judgment when interacting with others.”

This isn’t the case with all dating sites, however. Match integrated a policy of screening users against state and federal sex offender registries almost a decade ago, after a woman sued the company for connecting her with a six-time convicted rapist. However, once the company grew into Match Group in 2015 and acquired 45 other popular online dating brands over the course of the next several years, it did not apply that same practice across the board, meaning that the other platforms under its umbrella — Tinder, Hinge, Plenty of Fish, and OkCupid — leave users vulnerable to match with people accused and convicted of sex crimes. (Elite Daily has reached out to Tinder, Hinge, Plenty of Fish, and OKCupid for comment, but did not hear back at the time of publication.)

In a statement provided to Elite Daily, Vidhya Murugesan, a representative from Match Group corporate communications, emphasized that while sex offenders may exist on Match Group apps, the company does not tolerate them, adding that it uses "industry-leading tools, systems, and processes" and spends millions of dollars annually to monitor and remove these users.

"As technology evolves, we will continue to aggressively deploy new tools to eradicate bad actors, including users of our free products like Tinder, Plenty of Fish, and OkCupid where we are not able to obtain sufficient and reliable information to make meaningful background checks possible," Murugesan states. "A positive and safe user experience is our top priority, and we are committed to realizing that goal every day.”

Even Bumble, which is not owned by Match Group, has a clause in its terms of use informing users that it does not conduct criminal background checks, and is not responsible for the conduct of any user. “Your use of the app or site is at your own risk,” the company's terms of service warns. (A request for further comment on their policies made by Elite Daily was not returned at the time of publication.)

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For someone to be considered a sex offender, according to federal law, they must be convicted of sexual assault or rape, child molestation, child pornography, or acts of public indecency (like exposing themselves). Convicted offenders are required to register as a sex offender, and can be found by searching The National Sex Offender Public Website. And while it may be possible to cross-reference your matches by checking the site, there's no guarantee your match is using their legal name on an app.

As part of its 2019 report, CJI and ProPublica conducted an online survey of more than 1,200 female dating app users and found 31% of women reported having been sexually assaulted or raped by someone they met on a dating app. In another related study by CJI, which analyzed more than 150 incidents of sexual assault involving dating apps over the course of 16 months, study researchers found that the majority of these incidents occurred in the past five years — most often in parking lots, apartments and dorm rooms, and happened during the users’ first meeting. Most of these survivors met their perpetrators via Tinder, OkCupid, Plenty of Fish, or Match — all brands owned by Match Group. Even more concerning is the fact that in 10% of those incidents where users had noted they'd been sexually assaulted by those they'd matched with on dating apps, the perpetrator had already been accused of or convicted of sexual assault in general, at least once. (Elite Daily requested a comment from Match Group on this study, and did not hear back in time of publication.)

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So, why aren’t dating apps doing more to protect users? A Match Group spokesperson told CJI that the company is incapable of implementing a uniform screening system simply because it doesn’t collect enough information from its users and subscribers. These companies aren’t being held accountable for matching unsuspecting users with sex offenders because of the Communications Decency Act (CDA Section 230), a 1996 act initially passed to protect websites from being held liable for their users’ speech. According to CJI, the Match Group has invoked CDA 230 to dodge legal responsibility in incidents of alleged sexual assault between users.

Instead, it’s on users to protect themselves from meeting sex offenders and other dangerous individuals. While this sounds daunting, there are a number of ways to protect yourself,

Julie Spira, an online dating expert and author of The Perils of Cyber-Dating, advises being extra cautious in the beginning stages of getting to know someone. “Knowledge is power,” says Spira, who recommends Googling your date before you meet in person. You could do a reverse Google image search to potentially find out where they appear on the internet. You can also use background-checking sites like BeenVerified, or search someone's name or identifying details on the National Sex Offender Public Website’s sex offender registry.

While these measures may feel a little extreme, they’re actually one of the most effective means for protecting yourself. Six years ago, on a first date with someone I met on an app, I became suspicious when he whispered his last name to the bartender while paying our tab — as if he didn’t want me to hear it. When I called him out on it, he joked, “Don’t Google me.” Rest assured, that was the first thing I did — and what I found were pages upon pages of news stories about how he had been convicted of sexually assaulting a woman a year prior, when he was also in the armed services and a government official. Needless to say, when he texted me about coming over to his place for a second date, and became verbally aggressive when I declined, I was eternally grateful I'd done that quick Google search. My one regret? That I didn't report him to the app.

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When it comes time to meet, Spira recommends choosing a public place, and using your own form of transportation to and from the date — even if your date offers to pick you up or give you a ride home. That way, they won’t know where you live until you feel totally secure with them.

Always be on the lookout for red flags, like if your date doesn't want to meet in public, becomes verbally hostile, makes aggressive advances, or tries to convince you to do anything you don't want to do (like have another drink, invite them in, or go home with them).

Another tactic worth trying is assigning what Spira calls a “dating accountability partner” by designating a friend who knows who you’re meeting, where you’re going, and when you’re meeting up. She even suggests giving that friend your date’s phone number, if you have it.

“I recommend taking a bathroom break to check in and text your friend to let them know if the date is going well or not," she says. If your friend knows to expect that you’ll check in, they’ll also know to worry if you don’t.

Additionally, Facebook Dating has a safety feature baked into its design that allows you to opt into giving your match's info and a tracker of your live location to a designated friend, so they can check up on when you're out on a date.

Spira’s final piece of advice is simple: "Take it slow, and trust your intuition.” If a match or date’s behavior makes you uncomfortable, she advises immediately blocking them and reporting their profile to the dating site. Since so many of these apps don't conduct background checks, it's on users to share any negative experiences so apps can step in and potentially take action.

While dating apps can provide a convenient way to meet people you might not otherwise cross paths with IRL, it's imperative that you do whatever you can to protect yourself from harm. You don't have to stop swiping altogether, but you do need to be aware of the inherent risks involved. It takes time to build trust with someone you're dating — no matter where or how you've met them — but until you do, it's best to take precautions.

If you’ve experienced sexual assault, you’re not alone. To speak with someone who is trained to help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org.

Sources:

Julie Spira, online dating expert.

Vidhya Murugesan, representative from Match corporate communications.