Registered sex offenders are mixing and mingling — and finding victims on free dating apps and websites including Tinder, OKCupid and Plenty of Fish, a new investigation reveals.
Columbia Journalism Investigates — an investigative team at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism — and nonprofit newsroom ProPublica launched a 16-month investigation into sexual violence involving popular dating apps and online sites. (The ensuing story was co-published with BuzzFeed.)
What the journalists found was shocking: Match Group, which owns Match.com and a slew of free online dating services such as Plenty of Fish, OKCupid and Tinder, admitted they only protect subscribers from convicted and accused sexual predators on Match.com, which charges members to join.
Those looking for love on Match Group’s free sites and apps are on their own, the report found.
Our team @columbiajourn and @propublica is not done reporting on online dating sexual violence. If you, or someone you know has been impacted by this issue, or you have another story to tell please visit this link. https://t.co/XnDJZeKx4P— Keith Cousins (@KeithJCousins) December 4, 2019
A Match Group spokesperson told CJI that it can’t “implement a uniform screening protocol” for sexual offenders because it “doesn’t collect enough information from its free users — and some paid subscribers,” the article states.
“There are definitely registered sex offenders on our free products,” the spokesperson admitted to CJI.
The real-life consequences of this practice are serious – and scary.
During the lengthy investigation, CJI looked into more than 150 dating-app-related sexual assaults they found in 10 years’ worth of court records and news reports.
A majority of the victims – mostly women – met the men who attacked them on Match Group-owned sites such as OKCupid, Plenty of Fish and Tinder, the article says.
ICYMI: @columbiajourn Investigations, a team of leading investigative reporters including faculty, postgraduate fellows, and others, published this story via @propublica and @BuzzFeed.— Columbia Journalism (@columbiajourn) December 4, 2019
Watch postgraduate fellow, @HillBillFlynn talk about the months-long investigation. https://t.co/js4l7z5DAt
“Most incidents occurred in the past five years and during the app users’ first in-person meeting, in parking lots, apartments and dorm rooms,” the investigation revealed.
“In 10% of the incidents, dating platforms matched their users with someone who had been accused or convicted of sexual assault at least once,” the investigation revealed.
The Match Group spokesperson said the cases that CJI examined “need to be put in perspective with the tens of millions of people that have used our dating products,” the article says.
Match Group said in a statement to CJI that it “takes the safety, security and well-being of our users very seriously.”
It also said: “We believe any incident of misconduct or criminal behavior is one too many.”
Registered Sex Offenders Allowed to Swipe Freely
The investigation shows how convicted and accused sexual predators are allowed to prowl dating sites — and search for potential victims.
Founded in 1993, Match.com went live in 1995 and quickly became a top dating site.
After acquiring 45 different online apps and sites, Match.com became part of the Match Group, a sprawling conglomerate that reigns as the leading provider of dating apps and sites worldwide.
But, the investigation shows, when it comes to dating on these free sites, it’s up to subscribers to vet potential love interests themselves.
New members must sign an agreement saying they haven’t committed “a felony or indictable offense (or crime of similar severity), a sex crime, or any crime involving violence” and they aren’t “required to register as a sex offender with any state, federal or local sex offender registry.”
Match.com began combing government registries for sexual predators in 2011, after a woman named Carole Markin sued the company when she was sexually assaulted by a 6-time convicted rapist she’d met on the platform, the investigation shows.
Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Sign up for PEOPLE’s free True Crime newsletter for breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases.
After the lawsuit was settled, attorneys for Match said the company had begun “checking subscribers against state and national sex offender registries” — but for paid subscribers only.
The investigation details accounts of victims who were raped after meeting prospective partners on Match’s free dating apps. It also includes interviews from former employees who talk about what they view as the failures of the system to protect users – including how banned users can return simply by creating a new account.
It also shows that the existing protections put in place on Match.com are working.
“The analysis suggests that Match’s screening policy has helped to prevent the problem: Almost all of these cases implicated Match Group’s free apps; the only service that scours sex offender registries, Match, had none,” the article stated.
CJI and ProPublica continue to investigate and look for more alleged victims.
A spokesperson for the Match Group told PEOPLE via email, “This article is inaccurate, disingenuous and mischaracterizes Match Group safety policies as well as our conversations with ProPublica. We do not tolerate sex offenders on our site and the implication that we know about such offenders on our site and don’t fight to keep them off is as outrageous as it is false. We use a network of industry-leading tools, systems and processes and spend millions of dollars annually to prevent, monitor and remove bad actors – including registered sex offenders – from our apps.”