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Bringing law and order to online dating

The United States has few protections from the dangers of dating apps

Tero Vesalainen/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Bringing law and order to online dating

High rates of sexual violence linked to online dating apps have led foreign governments to crack down on the world of digital romance.

In September, the Australian government pushed online dating apps to reinforce their safety policies in response to research that showed 3 in 4 users experienced sexual violence through relationships formed on the platforms. In December 2022, a Sydney-based teacher was murdered by a man she’d met on a dating app. The man had a history of assaulting women. And last month, the U.K. Parliament passed a broad online safety bill that requires companies to proactively filter out objectionable and illegal content before it ends up in front of users. Similarly, the European Union enacted a similar bill that puts the onus on companies to more aggressively police their platform for offensive content.

Studies show that online dating is now the most popular way for U.S. couples to meet, but as more single people trust dating apps in their quest for love, the danger to physical safety, particularly to women, continues to grow. In the United States, there’s still little oversight specific to online dating safety.

Dating app users like Elizabeth, whose full name WORLD is withholding to protect her safety, often must turn to the police for help when online dating goes wrong.

After her sister married a man she had met through the dating platform Facebook Dating, Elizabeth, a divorced mom of two, decided she’d check it out, too. Within weeks, she connected with a local Marine veteran who had gone to the same school she had. Small talk soon turned into five-hour conversations.

But after about six weeks, Elizabeth started noticing red flags. “It started off well, but he couldn’t understand my terms, my boundaries,” she said. “He didn’t understand the word ‘no,’ he didn’t understand the words ‘Stop contacting me, stop contacting my family, just stop,’” she said, eventually prompting her to call the police.

That one bad experience pushed Elizabeth to take extra precautions on dates. She won’t get in a car with a man she’s just met. She uses an app to mask her phone number and doesn’t use her true name on dating apps. She also carries a gun. But Elizabeth never reported her experiences to Facebook, saying she doesn’t trust dating apps, the government, or even the police to keep her safe on a date.

Last year, U.S. Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., proposed legislation that would require dating apps to verify users’ identities with government-issued ID. Valadao’s Online Dating Safety Act went nowhere, but some wonder if Valadao’s bill was politically motivated. In 2022, his Democratic challenger admitted lying about his age on his dating profile. Valadao won reelection, but has yet to reintroduce the bill.

Meanwhile, headlines about crimes initiated via dating apps continue to stack up. On Oct. 6, a Denver cardiologist was arraigned for drugging and assaulting 13 women he met on dating apps. In less than one week’s time in mid-October, police in three states reported crimes related to online dating: robberies in Illinois, threats of violence in New York, and an assault in Florida.

The only real safeguards afforded to Americans come from dating apps themselves, which claim to try to root out scam artists, pornographic content, bots, and underage users. Hannah Shimko, chief executive at the Online Dating Association, said members of her trade association use a combination of human and artificial intelligence moderation to filter out harmful content flagged by users or algorithms.

“[If] someone said they were in Washington, D.C., but [dating app moderators] could see that it was a VPN and their real location was West Africa, where a lot of romance scammers are based, that would be flagged,” she said.

Shimko said dating apps often request identity verification to identify scams and bad actors. Some will ask a user to take a photo of himself at his current location so the dating app can match the face on that photo with ones posted on his profile. But one dating app user I spoke to, Georgia Dunham, said it’s optional on Hinge, the dating app she’s used in the past.

“That’s the problem,” said Dunham, a 24-year-old in Colorado. “If you’re a normal person who’s not crazy, you’ll do it. I would always do it so that people know, ‘Look, I am who I said I am and I’m in these photos,’ but it’s not required.”

Shimko said members of her association work together to develop safety standards to protect users and comply with the laws of the countries they operate in. But she admits the standards are merely recommendations, not requirements. And since laws differ country to country, she said dating apps must walk a fine line balancing user safety while protecting the privacy of consenting adults.

In some U.S. states for example, some dating services can access criminal records and sex offender registries. That’s not the case in Australia and the United Kingdom. “This is actually a big issue for us,” Shimko said. “Sites that want to be able to do this don’t necessarily have that access.”

Shimko also said there’s only so much that dating apps can do when people leave the platform and meet in person. At that point, all the apps can do is offer good advice: Don’t send money. Meet in public places. Be wary of people who isolate you from friends and family.

Lisa Anderson, director of young adults for Focus on the Family, said single people need to know what they’re looking for and exercise caution on every app they use, even those intended for Christians.

“A lot of Christians now think that this site says that they’re a Christian dating app, or they have a special platform for Christians, and so that’s got to be safer, but it’s just not,” she said. “It really is a free-for-all, where companies have now sold out to the dollar in the sense that there’s not going to be that hedge of even screening applicants around values or background or anything. So you are left to your own devices to figure that out.”

She noted apps and sites that tout their connection to the Christian community are also promoting hookup culture to attract more users.

“You have to get your head on straight and use the same wisdom that you would in any relationship,” Anderson said. “That involves being smart in how you craft your profile, what you put out there, what you make public.”

Dunham said she used dating apps Hinge and Bumble before she began dating her current boyfriend, someone she met in person during college. When she was on dating apps, she said it was hard to judge a man’s true character and faith based simply on a week’s worth of conversations and a dating profile, which she called “a curated version of yourself.”

“You can’t tell based off of that if they’re following Jesus day-to-day because you can’t see what that looks like in their life,” she said.

Juliana Chan Erikson

Juliana is a correspondent covering marriage, family, and sexuality as part of WORLD’s Relations beat. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Juliana resides in the Washington, D.C., metro area with her husband and three children.

Thank you for your careful research and interesting presentations. —Clarke

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