By ITV News Multimedia Producer Elisa Menendez
Dating apps and websites are being used as a “tool by abusers to meet victims” with experts warning a lack of accountability could leave users exposed to perpetrators.
Cases of rape, forced group sexual acts, stalking and suspected spiking have been linked to online dating sites, amid fears a lack of data on these types of crimes is masking the true scale of the issue.
The most recent figures from a sexual health clinic run by Solace Women’s Aid, which serves five London boroughs, found 25% of referrals were where the survivor had met the perpetrator on a dating app or website.
Roisin Ross, a former independent domestic and sexual violence advisor for Solace, told ITV News: “It’s well known that survivors under-report abuse, so this does not capture the full extent of the prevalence of this issue.”
She became so concerned she decided to create an online dating safety guide, which Solace has launched alongside our report.
The charity is now calling on the government to amend the Online Safety Bill to ensure that dating apps are included and the Bill address violence against women and girls online.
Haifa Barbari, a dating coach who has herself been a victim of stalking, harassment and cyberflashing at the hands of men she's met on dating apps, said: “It's so important to raise awareness of this topic because I’m concerned it's being overlooked by most dating apps and the authorities... there's a lack of measures for any accountability.
"It's always been a problem and with the way the authorities deal with harassment, even prior to it getting as bad as sexual assault, is concerning and puts people off coming forward,” she added.
Despite agreeing dating sites remain a good way to meet people, both women are calling on providers to do more to protect their users and work closer with authorities.
Several experts raised concerns to ITV News on and off the record that there is limited up-to-date information or data available in the UK on the issue - meaning it's impossible to know exactly how many alleged crimes are linked to dating platforms.
According to a police source, compiling figures on the overall extent of all crime relating to dating apps is difficult not only in a policing context, but also involving information that certain apps might hold relating to reported abuse.
The most recent analysis by the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) on stranger rapes linked to dating apps was last published six years ago - though ITV News understands it will be publishing more data in the coming months.
Its 2016 report, Emerging New Threat In Online Dating, found the number of allegations of people who were raped during a first meeting after making contact through a dating app had surged six-fold in a five-year period.
Sean Sutton, head of the NCA’s Serious Crime Analysis Section, had said a “new breed” of rapist could be emerging as the alleged perpetrators are less likely to have a criminal record.
The NCA found 184 people reported being raped by someone they met on a dating app or website in 2014 - up from 33 in 2009. 85% of the victims were women.
Rape is significantly under-reported and those attacked by someone they met on a dating site may be less likely to come forward, meaning the true number could have been 10 times higher, the NCA warned at the time.
In the six years since that analysis, there have been a number of high-profile cases in the UK and beyond where a victim met their perpetrator through a dating app or site. In 2018, Grace Millane was murdered by Jesse Kempson in Auckland on their first date after meeting via Tinder. It later emerged he was a serial sex attacker who used dating apps to find new victims and went on another Tinder date just hours after killing the 22-year-old.
Serial killer and sex offender Stephen Port also used dating apps - mainly gay dating platform Grindr - to find and target new victims. He murdered four young gay men, Anthony Walgate, 23, Gabriel Kovari, 22, Daniel Whitworth, 21, and Jack Taylor, 25, after spiking their drinks with fatal amounts of date-rape drug GHB. Port was convicted of 22 offences against 11 men in total. Even before Port killed his first victim, Mr Walgate, he had previously been accused of rape.
In Ireland, Gardai police are reportedly set to lodge an official request to the US Justice Department to provide details explaining how a convicted killer and rapist allegedly registered on Tinder under a fake name. Ian Horgan, who was convicted of the manslaughter and rape of Rachel Kiely in 2000, is facing going back to prison after being accused of breaching the Sex Offenders Act. He maintains that an issue with his phone led him to register under "Cian" as an error.
Just this week, police in the US have a begun a criminal investigation six weeks after 23-year-old Lauren Smith-Fields died in her apartment while she was on a date with a man she met on app Bumble. Her death was ruled an accidental drug overdose by the state chief medical examiner’s office.
“I told him politely that we were looking for different things, wished him all the best… And then he started stalking me”
"I've had serious harassment issues and so have my clients,” said Ms Barbari, a dating coach and founder of self-coaching app B What Matters.
The worst case, she said, was a man she dated after meeting on a dating app in 2019.
After about five dates she felt they weren’t connecting, politely told him they were looking for different things but that she had a nice time and wished him all the best.
"And then he started stalking me,” she said.
At first, it was online - creating fake accounts on Instagram and messaging Ms Barbari.
"He would message me and he exposed himself. He sent a d*** pic and said 'why don't you talk to me, I thought we had something'. He really took it badly,” she added.
And Ms Barbari isn’t alone. YouGov research found in 2018 that four in 10 women in the UK have been sent an unsolicited photo of a man’s genitals without consent. Dating app Bumble’s research suggests this could be even higher, with nearly half of those aged 18-24 receiving a sexual photo they did not ask for in the past year alone. Though these figures are not only relating to photos sent via dating platforms.
Ms Barbari said she blocked the man's accounts but he would text her. She’d keep blocking him but he’d keep creating new numbers.
"Then he showed up at my workplace. That made me very scared,” she said.
Ms Barbari said luckily, she had security who called her. She told them to turn him away and gave them a picture of him in case he came back.
She said she reported the incident to the dating app and received an automated message saying they may have to share some of her details with him, which worried her. Ms Barbari declined proceeding with the report and emailed the company directly asking what information would be shared - but she received a response saying they could not clarify.
"There are no protective measures for the person who reports,” she said.
"I had to back away from reporting it because I was scared that the details would cause more retaliation. I told them that while I understand they need to give that person a reason, it will expose who I am.
“On dating apps you often can’t get through to human beings and explain context to the problem, which is concerning."
She also reported him to the police but was told at the time that she had to keep a log of every time he contacted her. She was told it would take about 10 reported incidents before they could seek an injunction against him.
In the end, she felt “demotivated” by the responses and didn’t take it further with the police or the dating app.
Three years on and the man still messages her randomly every six months from a new mobile number. She blocks him, but he manages to find new ways to contact her. “It’s scary, it’s harassment,” she said.
Ms Barbari also shared the “really horrible” experience of one of her clients - with her permission - who was followed home by a man she had gone on a date with after meeting on a dating app.
After the date, he offered to walk her home and she declined. They said goodbye and she walked home.
“Just before she got back, maybe four doors before her place, he revealed himself,” explained Ms Barbari. “He said: ‘Hey I just want to see if you’re sure?’”
Her client was shaken, told him to leave, went inside and immediately called the police. They showed concern, took down a report and said if he returns, they would send an officer. The man did not come back.
She also reported the incident to the dating app on which they met. But she still doesn’t know what, if any, action was taken.
To report someone on most dating apps, users tap a button to report or block that person and then are taken through a series of steps.
“Then it's gone into the ether, you don't know anything. It's really poor management and services,” said Ms Barbari. "How many times does someone have to be reported to be removed?
"This is such a human issue. You need to speak to someone on the other side who's going to be supportive and empathetic and trained to deal with trauma... No one wants to talk to a bot.”
"I’ve seen survivors who have turned up to engage in sexual activity with someone and there have been multiple people there… and forced into sex acts”
Frontline domestic and sexual violence workers for charity Solace have become increasingly concerned over the number of referrals they've received where survivors had been raped, physically abused and coercively controlled by someone they met on a dating app or website.
Solace's Ms Ross, who has worked in the Violence Against Women and Girls sector for four years, said: "Throughout my time working in sexual violence, I've noticed that dating apps are used as a bit of a tool by abusers to meet victims they might not usually have access to and then abuse them.
"I've witnessed this a lot with survivors that I've supported - but inside this role it was more and more.”
Ms Ross has seen cases of survivors being "love bombed" (where a person lavishes another with excessive attention and grand romantic gestures to manipulate them) into relationships, which would turn into "very high-risk domestic abuse, including strangulation, punching, financial abuse".
"I've also had where survivors haven't even met their perpetrator but through location settings on apps and distinguishable features from photographs, the perpetrators have found out where the survivors live and have stalked them and sent them presents," she said.
"I think stalking is one of the highest risk things that can come out of dating apps."
She has also supported people who have agreed to meet up with a person after chatting on a kink app, but when they showed up, multiple people were there. They've then felt trapped and unable to say no and forced into group sexual acts. Others have been subjected to stealthing (where a person removes a condom during sex without consent).
"Dating apps give perpetrators a platform of opportunity”
Another concern highlighted by many is that anyone can easily sign up to most dating apps or websites with fake pictures and information.
Sarah Everard’s killer, then-Met officer Wayne Couzens, created a fake dating profile on Match.com using his middle name and false details just months before he raped and murdered the 33-year-old after kidnapping her by pretending to her arrest her in the street. He was also found to have repeatedly exposed himself to a McDonald’s worker weeks prior to the murder.
Little is required to be accepted on the apps or sites with virtually no security checks. Some, but not all, require verification via matching social media profiles.
Some offer advice on how to create an “authentic” profile and suggest to “be yourself”, but there is limited information on the repercussions for those who sign up with false details.
And perpetrators can just as easily delete their profiles or block a person after abusing or assaulting them - making it even more difficult for survivors to come forward or seek a conviction due to limited evidence.
Ms Ross said: “Perpetrators can create multiple accounts... post abuse, track victims through this app, gain information about the victim that they wouldn't really be able to if they met in real life - and it also allows them to remain anonymous.
“So, it [the dating app] gives them a platform of opportunity.”
Solace is now calling on all dating platforms to include a short compulsory consent workshop as part of building a dating profile, clear verified accounts so users know who has been passed the verification process, accessible safety plans for users, and a clear process of eliminating abusers from using the app.
Ms Barbari believes dating apps, police and the government need to work together to verify identities and track data so they could spot previous legal or medical concerns with anyone signing up.
"It's a shame because [dating apps] are such a good way to meet people," she said. "We just need them to make a safer environment and make people feel a bit more secure and that they have a place to go and be taken seriously when they report."
What are dating apps doing to keep users safe?
Bumble - a "women-first" platform - appears to be the only dating app that is attempting to take more responsibility and is lobbying for the law to be changed so that cyberflashing becomes illegal in England and Wales. In Scotland, it has been a criminal offence for more than a decade.
Bumble says it uses AI and a team of human moderators to verify users and if someone has a blue shield on their profile, they've been verified. The app also blurs "lewd nude images", which users can view, delete or report.
Match Group, which owns the largest number of dating platforms including Tinder, Match.com, Hinge, Plenty Of Fish, and Ok Cupid, told ITV News in a statement: "We recognize we have an important role to play in helping prevent sexual assault and violence in communities around the world."
“We take every report of violence seriously, and vigilantly remove and block any accounts we find that have been reported for this behavior," the company said.
Match Group said it works with "lawmakers, regulators and police" in the UK and worldwide "to enhance safety measures across our communities," and has "harassment-preventing AI tools, background check technology, ID verification for profiles, and a portal that helps us better communicate with law enforcement investigating crimes".
A National Police Chiefs’ Council spokesperson said: “The police service is absolutely committed to safeguarding victims of crime, particularly those who have been targeted because of or relating to interactions they have had online".
They added that "there are safety measures on each app or site which users should make themselves aware of" and that policing works “closely” with providers to “ensure an appropriate response can be given when a crime has been committed, but to also ensure everyone can play their part in improving safety for all users. This is not on policing alone to solve.”
Tips to help you stay safe online:
Solace said: "All women and girls have the right to live safe lives free from fear, and we wish that we didn’t have to create additional advice on how to stay safe, but we also have to be realistic about the world we live in, and the dangers facing women."
The charity's Staying Safe on Dating Apps guide advises:
Setting up a profile:
Don’t use photographs or state information that indicates where you live or work
Use dating apps that make their users verify their profiles
Block and report suspicious users
Be yourself - this is the only way you’ll attract people you’ll get on with
Never send money or share financial information with anyone you match with
If you think something on the app could be improved to make you and others feel safer, contact the app
Go at your own pace, you don’t need to rush to meet someone, give out your number or any private details unless you are ready to do so – you are in control
Before you meet:
Make sure your phone is charged and you have your house keys
Screenshot their profile before meeting
You can always ask to check out your potential date on social media (if they have it)
Arrange to meet somewhere public like a restaurant, bar, park or market
Tell a friend where you are going and set up a code word that means you need help
You can also download a personal safety app such as bSafe, Hollie Guard, Walk Safe or share your location with a friend on find my friends or Whatsapp for the entire date
Move to messaging via text/numbers if that makes you feel at ease, similarly them not having your number might suit you better!
Video chat/speak on the phone before meeting, this might make you feel more comfortable meeting in person. Some apps let you do this via the app
Work out how you can get to and from the date on public transport
On the date:
If something doesn’t feel right, trust your instincts - end the date
You don’t need to disclose everything about your personal life if you don’t want to
Don’t leave your drink, your phone or personal items unattended
No matter if you flirt, kiss or go home with the person you are allowed to say no, change your mind or leave at any point in the date
If you do decide you’d like to be sexually intimate with the person, make sure you use protection
If you go to an unknown location, send your safe person your location and you can create a check in system
When you get to the location of the date work out how you can leave safely if needed
If something bad happens:
Ask for help from a waitress, bartender, shop keeper or someone around you
If you leave and they follow you or you try to leave and they do not let you ask for help, text your safe person a code word, make a scene to get help
Call 999 if you need urgent help, if you don’t want the person to hear you, press 55 when the operator has answered
Call someone your safe person to help you
Go to the nearest open shop, restaurant, bar and ask for help
Rape crisis helpline: 08088029999
National Domestic Abuse Helpline: 08082000247
If you’ve had a bad experience with a dating app or site and feel comfortable to share your story, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.