The website Match.com is nearly 25 years old, making it the granddaddy of dating websites and a veritable dinosaur among younger platforms like Tinder and Bumble. Despite its age, the website is still quite active, boasting an estimated 35 million unique monthly visitors and a much bigger share of older users than the newer apps do. Match also has one feature many of its competitors lack: the company screens its users for registered sex offenders.
That isn’t an industry-wide practice, however. In fact, Match, which started screening in 2011, seems to be alone among the online dating platforms owned by the same company, Match Group, Dallas-a based corporation that owns 45 online dating brands. Match Group has annual revenue of $1.7 billion and 9 million paid subscribers across all its platforms, which includes big names like Tinder and PlentyofFish.
According to a new story from ProPublica and Columbia Journalism Investigations (CJI), many of these platforms require users to indicate that they haven’t committed “a felony or indictable offense (or crime of similar severity), a sex crime, or any crime involving violence.” That’s from PlentyofFish’s terms of services, which also stipulates that users have to confirm that they aren’t “required to register as a sex offender with any state, federal or local sex offender registry.” But there’s currently no mechanism to check if users are lying. In a statement to ProPublica, a PlentyofFish spokesperson said the company “does not conduct criminal background or identity verification checks on its users or otherwise inquire into the background of its users.”
That gap allowed Susan Deveau to meet Mark Papamechail, both in their early fifties, in late 2016. Per ProPublica:
In 2014, Papamechail became familiar to sex crimes detectives again. This time, a woman he met through PlentyofFish accused him of raping her on their first date. The claim put him in county jail without bail for two years; he was eventually acquitted after a weeklong jury trial. Still, law enforcement officials raised his sex offender status to the state’s most dangerous category, Level III, deeming him highly likely to offend again. By the time PlentyofFish matched him with Deveau, Papamechail’s heightened status meant he would have already appeared on the state’s sex offender registry—something that PlentyofFish didn’t check, the company confirms. At the time, Deveau, a recovering alcoholic, was living in a sober house near Papamechail’s home. Over the ensuing months, the pair chatted online. They texted and spoke on the phone. They met in person; she went to his apartment twice.
The third time the two met, Papamechail forced himself on her, and Deveau called the police. According to court records, she told the 911 dispatcher, Deveau “a man was trying to rape her and had threatened her.” The call ended with her saying, “He’s coming.”
Given a lack of official statistics and studies, CJI conducted a non-scientific survey of 1,200 women, finding that a third of them said they were sexually assaulted by someone they met on a dating app. Half of those women reported they were raped. CJI also examined 150 sexual assaults involving dating apps—culled from news reports, lawsuits, and criminal records—finding that “most incidents occurred in the past five years and during the app users’ first in-person meeting, in parking lots, apartments and dorm rooms. Most victims, almost all women, met their male attackers through Tinder, OkCupid, PlentyofFish or Match. Match Group owns them all.” Match has an advantage here though. A Match Group spokesperson told CJI that since it’s a paid, subscription service, the platform gathers more information from users than free apps like Tinder. The spokesperson acknowledged that the free apps don’t have nearly enough data for screening, adding, “There are definitely registered sex offenders on our free products.”
While Match makes efforts to screen its users for criminal history, that’s a recent development that came about after a lawsuit. In 2011 Carole Markin sued Match, after she was sexually assaulted on a second date by a man she met on the website. In response, Match heightened its screening. But that’s only one platform. And, as Match itself advertises, one in five relationships now start online.