Before a 36-year-old man in Oregon charged with attempted murder shot and killed himself during a standoff with authorities late last month, the Grants Pass Police Department warned the public that Foster could be using dating apps while on the run, calling into question safety measures on some of the major dating apps and what steps users can take to protect themselves.
The question of safety on dating apps isn’t anything new though. More than 40 million Americans currently use them, as online dating has become the most common way U.S. couples meet. But compared to other online services like Uber, which have also faced scrutiny for the facilitation of sexual assault, dating apps are lagging behind in security measures.
In November, a Nebraska man’s appeal was rejected after he was sentenced to death for dismembering a woman he met through Tinder. In April, a Connecticut man was charged with murder, sexual misconduct and more after strangling his Tinder date to death. In England in 2015, a 30-year-old man killed a woman on their first date after meeting on the popular dating app Plenty of Fish.
“We all have friends who have had wonderful success stories and met their lifetime partner through these apps. But that also comes with the understanding that there are also bad actors who are going to use these apps in various ways to perpetrate crimes,” Erinn Robinson, Director of Media Relations at RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) tells TIME.
A 2019 ProPublica report found more than a third of the over 1,200 women surveyed by the Columbia Journalism Institute reported being sexually assaulted by someone they met through an online dating platform. Over half of those women said they were raped. Another survey by the Australian Institute of Criminology found that three in four survey respondents had been subjected to sexual violence facilitated via dating apps in the last five years.
But even as 60% of Americans support companies that run dating apps requiring background checks before someone can make a profile, experts warn that because sexual assaults are severely unreported, even checks could not provide a full sense of security.
Julie Valentine, a sexual assault nurse examiner and an Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies and Research at the Brigham Young University College of Nursing, studied dating app facilitated sexual violence after she noticed a pattern of sexual assault victims (who were college students) across the state saying they were raped on their first date with someone they met on a dating app.
The study found evidence that assaults that were facilitated via a dating app were also much more violent, among other things.
“From my research findings we are postulating that sexually violent predators use dating apps as hunting grounds for vulnerable victims,” Valentine tells TIME.
What are apps doing to keep users safe?
The terms and conditions for Hinge and Tinder also ask users to affirm that they are not required to register as a sex offender, though that is not specified on Bumble. But all three apps note in the fine print that users are responsible for their interactions with others, and mention that they do not conduct criminal background checks on members or otherwise “inquire into the background” of users.
These online platforms also all offer a photo verification process that reassures users that people are using pictures that match what they look like. And in general, these platforms have language in their terms that bans harassment and hate speech.
Bumble’s security measures are by far the most extensive, encouraging users to report the match if you meet in person and feel “unsafe or uncomfortable,” or if you see someone who you know is dangerous offline.
But there are still questions as to the efficacy of these policies. Valentine says that the photo verification process only affirms people’s physical identity, but does not say anything about the background and safety of a user.
Apps like Bumble promise to ban or warn users who do not adhere to community guidelines, but there is no clarity on how one can effectively be banned from the app. Instead, Bumble asks users to let them know if they see someone “that you’ve already unmatched with, or someone that you know has been blocked from the app” so that it can be investigated.
Bumble did not respond to TIME’s request for more information on user safety.
A representative from Match Group, the parent company of apps, including Hinge and Tinder, told TIME that the team uses “automated and manual moderation and review tools” to scan profiles for inappropriate language, pictures, and other suspicious activity. They also said they block certain email addresses, phone numbers, and other identifiers in an effort to police who is allowed on the site. Accounts can also be banned across all Match brands, meaning a user who was banned on Tinder could also be prohibited from using Hinge.
They have also made efforts to partner with nonprofit organizations like Garbo, an American-based background check platform where users can check the violent and harmful criminal history of their date. Match Group invested in Garbo in 2021, offering users two free searches until 500,000 searches were claimed. Now, users can choose to continue using Garbo on their own, though each search costs around $3.25 with the additional processing fees.
Bumble has alternatively partnered with Bloom, a website that offers free online courses for survivors of sexual assault, in 2021, offering their services to victims who met their abuser on the app.
Experts like Robinson, say efforts like this are a start, but she believes dating app companies have a responsibility to use some of their “innovation and forward thinking” to create safer online dating experiences.
And as many safety measures are in place, they are not useful if people are not aware of the features available to them. “It’s really important that apps communicate these features and make them very easily accessible for users,” Robinson says. She adds that platforms need to ensure they are reviewing incidents users have taken the step to report.
Other experts, like Valentine, say these written guidelines are insufficient because no one really combs through them. “Dating apps’ approach to making their platform safer are to have written safety guidelines that users can choose to read or not read,” Valentine tells TIME. With that practice, she says, the “full burden of preventing a sexual assault [is] on the potential victim, which leads to victim blaming.”
She also notes that there’s a big difference between meeting someone in-person and online. Usually people who meet in-person do so through work, mutual friends, or some sort of activity, which she says likely means potential dates have gone through some sort of screening process by their peers.
How do dating apps compare to other online services?
Ride-sharing services, such as Uber, have also long endured criticism pertaining to customer safety, with a lawsuit filed as recently as last July over sexual assault allegations. But their sexual assault report numbers have dropped significantly since the app implemented more safety measures—including a reporting system, 24/7 support from a group of specialized agents, and a safety check-up feature that allows users to choose trusted contacts to share their ride with.
In terms of safety for users, Uber has a slight advantage over dating apps because drivers need to pass a background check and the company uses GPS tracking on rides.
Valentine, who authored the study on dating app facilitated sexual violence inspired by her experience as a forensic nurse, says that online dating is much more dangerous than taking an Uber.
“Initially, when the rideshare apps started, we did have some patients that came in and reported. But I think that those companies have gotten much better at vetting their drivers and doing background checks and screening,” Valentine tells TIME.
In Valentine’s study, a Brigham Young University nursing team analyzed the charts of sexual assault victims over a three-year span (2017-2020) and found that 14% of the rapes committed by acquaintances “occurred during an initial meetup arranged through a dating app.”
Valentine has “heightened worries about meeting on dating apps” because her research shows it’s easy for people to create a persona and reach out to individuals who are much more vulnerable, including those with mental illnesses. Victims of rape who met their attacker on a dating app and went to the hospital after an assault also reported assaults that were more violent, according to the study. Of the nearly 3,500 people that participated in the study, a third of these victims were strangled and about a quarter had breast injuries.
Valentine’s research suggests a number of improvements for dating app safety, including requiring “information about consent and dating safety to be read…improving artificial intelligence to block unwanted sexually-explicit texts or images, creating transparent systems for reports of sexual assault, and responding quickly to sexual violence disclosures.” None of the dating apps TIME reached out to could provide a timeline on how long they take to respond to reports of harassment or violence.
How to stay safe while using dating apps
Robinson suggests users stay safe by limiting the amount of personal information they share online. She recommends not to post a picture that could be linked to a social media profile, and to avoid mentioning where they live, work, or visit regularly. “If sharing information makes you uncomfortable, you don’t have to continue these interactions,” Robinson says.
Bumble encourages users to do some research on their date, whether that be asking for their last name or for them to get photo verified. Tinder suggests people never leave their drinks or personal items unattended while on a date.
When meeting people you matched with for the first time, Robinson recommends doing so in a public setting and letting someone you trust know where and with whom you will meet. And if you feel unsafe while on a date, Bumble suggests finding a nearby advocate, which could mean enlisting the help of a bartender or waiter.
It’s also always wise to arrange your own transportation to and from the date so you have more control.
Setting boundaries and walking away when you feel it’s necessary is imperative, Robinson says. “Politeness is never as important as your safety.”
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