John Daly* couldn’t get over his luck when he matched with ‘Sandra, 28’ on Tinder. She was blonde, blue-eyed and beautiful – and unusually eager to progress their online flirtation to a real-world date.
“If I’m honest, she was totally out of my league,” says John (38) from Dublin. “So it was a surprise – a pleasant surprise – when she was so keen to meet up.”
Over the course of a week, John and Sandra exchanged somewhere in the region of 80 messages on WhatsApp, where their relationship became “very intense very quickly”.
At first Sandra asked lots of “ice-breaker questions”, but before long her messages became sexually graphic.
“I was just out of a long-term relationship and new to the whole online dating thing,” says John. “I had heard loads of people say Tinder was for hook-ups and all that so I just assumed that that was the way it was.”
A date was soon arranged in a venue on Dublin’s Southside but neither party turned up. The day beforehand, John told a friend about his upcoming date. He showed him a picture of Sandra and shared some of the messages she had sent him.
“He smelt a rat immediately,” says John, “especially when I told him that she only had one photograph of herself on the app. Apparently that’s a bit of a red flag.”
John’s friend advised him to put the picture through Google Reverse Image – a tool that allows people to search for related images.
After just a few clicks, John found a Sydney Morning Herald news story with Sandra’s photo attached to it. It transpires that ‘Sandra’ was an Australian woman called Charlotte*. To make matters even more confusing, the story reported the tragic circumstances surrounding Charlotte’s death two years previously. “I felt like a complete fool,” says John. “My friend told me to report the incident to Tinder but I just deleted my profile, I was so embarrassed.”
John has since realised that Sandra was a ‘catfish’ – a broad-stroke term to describe people who use stolen photos to assume fake identities and build relationships online.
Catfish have different motives. Sometimes they have a target – an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend that they want to exact revenge on. Sometimes they want to explore a different identity or gender by masquerading as someone else. And sometimes they’re criminals.
A recent BBC Panorama report revealed that Action Fraud, the UK’s national reporting service for fraud, receives up to 10 reports of online romance scams a day – most of which originate on dating platforms.
Closer to home, the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau is dealing with an increasing number of reports from people who have been the victims of romance fraud, and who are often deeply embarrassed about coming forward.
“We have a good few cases of romance frauds on our books, although none of them is on the scale seen overseas,” head of the bureau, Detective Chief Superintendent Pat Lordan told Review. “They say love can be blind and some of the victims have given away thousands of euro to people they have never met.”
Romance fraudsters capitalise on the anonymity of social media and dating platforms. They use stolen photographs of attractive people to set up fake profiles and then, when they match with a target, they move the conversation to a different platform so that their dating account doesn’t get flagged as spam.
The perpetrator builds up a relationship with the target very quickly. They volunteer personal information to establish emotional intimacy and they declare their undying love after just a few weeks.
Eventually they tell the target that they have run into bad luck. They were mugged on the street or they just found out that a family member needs a life-saving operation. They arouse sympathy before they ask for money – if the victim hasn’t already offered to give it.
“People don’t understand why they would have paid out money to someone they haven’t met,” says cyberpsychology researcher Nicola Fox Hamilton.
“However, these scammers are very skilled at what they do. Some of the organised groups of scammers even hire psychologists to create scripts and processes that are more likely to work successfully.”
Nicola says scammers use psychological tactics to manipulate victims.
“In order to process the amount of information that we do on a daily basis, we use cognitive shortcuts to help us,” she explains.
“For example, we favour information that agrees with beliefs or attitudes we already have; we find that information more persuasive. So when we see an attractive profile on a dating site, and they initially appear to be very interested and sincere, we are more likely to overlook information that should be a red flag, warning us that things aren’t right.”
Reports suggest that women in their forties and fifties are more likely to be the victims of romance scams. However, there are scams that specifically target men – younger men especially.
At least five men in the UK and one man in Ireland – 17-year-old Ronan Hughes from Co Tyrone – have taken their own lives after falling victim to online sextortion rackets.
While romance scammers use confidence tricks to gain a victim’s trust, sextortion criminals ensnare their targets with titillating photos and sexually-charged messages.
Before long the man is encouraged to perform a sexual act during an online video chat that is secretly recorded, and the footage is later used to blackmail him for large sums of money.
Looking back, John thinks ‘Sandra’ might have been setting him up for this particular scam. “I reckon she was going to pull out of our date at the last minute and suggest a Skype chat instead,” he says.
John’s experience raises a lot of questions about the safety of dating platforms, just as the case of Tinder rapist Patrick Nevin shone a light on the dark side of online dating.
How can we be sure that we’re talking to who we think we’re talking to on a dating platform? Is it easier for criminals and sexual predators to target people in a space where users can easily fly under the radar with fake profiles? And, more to the point, are these platforms doing enough to keep their users safe?
For Noeline Blackwell, chief executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC), the answer is no.
The DRCC’s recently-published annual report highlighted some worrying new trends, including “a number of clients who have reported being raped by people they met on a dating platform”.
The organisation is now calling on dating platforms to put better safeguards in place.
“In a situation where the online dating companies are making massive amounts of money out of their product, there is a responsibility on them to ensure – or at least try to ensure – that people are not harmed by the product they are selling,” says Noeline.
“They have enough experience and enough knowledge of how the system operates to in some way apply that traceability,” she adds. “But there is a concern that it doesn’t suit them to do it – perhaps because it will slow down the sale of the product.”
Some of the newer dating platforms have made user-safety their USP: Bumble puts women in control of the connection; Once allows women to review the men they date.
The more established dating platforms, on the other hand, offer little more than a page of safety tips that reminds users to do their own “due diligence”.
Nicola thinks these safety tips could be more specific and better circulated. “Some of those tips could be about using reverse image search,” she suggests.
She also thinks dating platforms could monitor suspicious key words and phrases.
“If someone is asked to move to a different platform to talk, they might get a warning of things to look out for, or if someone is asking them to go to their house on a first date it might warn them that it’s not a great idea, and it might be better to meet publicly, etc.”
Noeline thinks an enhanced verification process could make a difference. “If someone sets up a fake profile and not reveal who they are – and the company can’t identify who they are even when they are asked – then there is a real danger,” she points out.
Another idea, proposed by Fine Gael Senator Catherine Noone, is a legislative ban on sex offenders using dating apps.
George Kidd, chief executive of the Online Dating Association – a standards body for the online dating industry – welcomes the proposal. “It puts a duty on the individual and creates consequences if he or she does not comply. That is a real aid if sites have no right of access to information on convictions,” he says.
But what is to stop a sex offender from creating a fake profile, asks Daragh O Brien, managing director of data protection consultancy Castlebridge.
The other issue, he says, is that the legislation could only be enforced against providers operating out of Ireland, and not providers operating out of other jurisdictions. “Not to mention the ethical problems,” he adds.
“What we could look at is whether the operators of these platforms have sufficient controls to identify problematic customers about whom complaints are made and issues are filed,” he suggests.
George says members of the Online Dating Association already have “robust conditions” on the behaviour of users and will “remove those who offend or may harm others”. However, he acknowledges that they can always get better.
The organisation is trying to centralise reports of dating fraud so that they can circulate them to companies in the sector. They are looking into ways that they can use charities, interest groups and social media to get safety messages out to users, “particularly those who might be new to apps and online dating”, and they’re working on a “Date Great: Date Safe” safety message that might be sent in instances where online contact is brief and where people want to meet others on a same-day/next-day basis.”
It’s a step in the right direction but it’s by no means a silver bullet. Online dating-initiated scams and sexual assaults are on the rise and, for now at least, the onus is on users to stay safe.
* Some names have been changed
Is your online interest a scammer?
Cyberpsychologist Nicola Fox Hamilton, below, lists some of the red flags to look out for:
A very attractive profile of someone in a different country who is unable to come and visit you – for example male profiles are often attractive, high up in the military and stationed abroad; female profiles are often very attractive, from economically depressed countries (eg Ukraine) and so cannot visit because they can’t afford to.
As soon as you start communicating with the profile, they start messaging a lot, it gets intense very quickly, and they try to move you off the dating platform into something like an instant message app very quickly. They usually don’t want to speak on the phone – but that’s not always the case.
The intensity of the relationship builds very quickly and they often declare love very soon. People scammed in these cases report feeling like no one has ever listened to them as much as this person; they’ve told them things they never told anyone else. They groom the person over a period of time – anything from weeks to up to two years – before they start asking for money.
They usually ask for something small first. Once you’ve agreed to that, you’re more likely to follow through on that commitment if they ask for more. Sometimes they will ask for a very large amount of money first – and when the person baulks at that, they ask for a smaller but still significant amount and are more likely to receive it. These are key psychological tools to persuade people to do something.
How to date safely online
Do background checks: Use the Google Reverse Image tool to verify the authenticity of photos and try to glean as much information as possible on the person, before cross-checking it online. For extra peace of mind, look for common connections and mutual friends.
Get advice: If you’re new to online dating, it’s important to get some pointers from people who have more experience of the landscape. They’ll point out shady online behaviours and common red flags.
Meet in public: If you’re meeting someone for the first time, choose a public and well-populated place.
Tell people: Let a friend or family member know about your plans, and give them contact details for the person you are planning to meet. Keep your friend updated throughout the date (and make sure your mobile phone is fully charged).
Trust your instincts: Dating and relationship coach Annie Lavin advises online daters to listen to their gut. “Do not overlook information that sounds shady,” she advises. “Most people who end up in unhealthy relationships claim they knew there was ‘something off’ from the very beginning.”
Don’t stay silent: The director of the Rape Crisis Network Ireland, Clíona Saidlear, worries that victims of dating platform linked sexual assault and rape may not come forward. “One of the major issues around the online setting is that you are active in that space and, to some extent saying you’re available and engaging in building connections with people, oftentimes with romantic/sexual intentions.
“But the message we really need to give out is that it doesn’t matter what you say you’re up for on your dating profile. That still doesn’t take away your right to say no to something.”