As romance scammers turn dating apps into “hunting grounds,” critics look to Match Group to do more | #lovescams | #datingapps

When the Federal Trade Commission began investigating problems related to romance scams five years ago, the consumer watchdog agency’s analysts gained access to internal data from one of the biggest players in the online dating space — 

“It was incredibly troubling,” a former FTC analyst told CBS News, speaking on the condition of anonymity because portions of the case are still pending. 

The agency’s findings made their way into the government’s 2019 lawsuit against the website’s parent company, Match Group. “Between 2013 and at least mid-2018,” the lawsuit alleged, “consumers who were considering purchasing a subscription were generally not aware that as many as 25-30 percent of members who registered each day were using to perpetrate scams.”

Match Group told CBS News that it “believes the FTC allegations have no merit.” But that allegation, online security experts say, pulls back a curtain on an intractable challenge that has confronted not only Match Group, but social media and online dating apps across the country: How to maintain an open environment that is easy for people to join, while at the same time imposing screening software that blocks technically sophisticated overseas scammers.

“It’s existential to our business to remain safe,” Match Group CEO Bernard Kim told CBS News.

The company says it has made significant strides in keeping scammers off its site. In response to questions from CBS News, Match Group touted “continuous investments — to prevent, monitor and remove bad actors who have violated our terms.” They include both automated and manual scans for red-flag language and images and suspicious profiles, efforts it says remove 96% of “potentially improper accounts” within a day. Match told CBS News it consistently spends $125 million each year on trust and safety, and the team has grown by 30% in the past year. 

And yet, the measurable evidence is that efforts to protect online daters still have not slowed the criminal activity. In the five years since the FTC brought its case, a wave of romance scams has washed over the nation, with American victims losing more than $1 billion to overseas criminals in 2023 — an amount that is likely much larger because so many cases go unreported, law enforcement officials said. 

“It’s a substantial problem, and it’s one that’s rapidly accelerating,” says Arun Rao, deputy assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice’s Consumer Protection Branch.

Retired U.S. Postal Inspector Natalie Reda, who has investigated dozens of romance scam cases, said the problem has not been a simple one to solve. Online dating companies including Match Group do, she said, assist law enforcement on cases and hire former agents to help enhance security.

“They have put in stopgaps, facial recognition, warnings on the websites, and to say all that, I can’t throw them entirely under the bus,” Reda said. But, she said even with all that, dating apps remain the primary “hunting grounds” for scammers in search of vulnerable targets.

Targets like Laura Kowal, an Illinois widow who went on in 2018 and was quickly swept off her feet by a charming man who said he was an investment executive from Sweden named Frank Borg. She ended up sending her life’s savings, $1.5 million, to the scammer behind the profile, without ever meeting in person. Kowal was found dead in the Mississippi River in 2020. An autopsy concluded she drowned, but did not determine whether foul play was involved or if she died by suicide.

Laura Kowal, seen here at left with her daughter, Kelly Gowe, lost $1.5 million to a romance scammer and was later found dead.

Family photo

Match Group said when company officials were notified by federal law enforcement about the fraudulent “Frank Borg” profile, they removed the account immediately. The company would not say how long the profile was live on their site, or how many others matched with Frank.

The “F-word”

Just how much companies like Match Group have done to protect customers is a matter of disagreement in both law enforcement circles and among online security experts. Three former Match Group executives who spoke with CBS News about their experiences at the company described an uphill battle to protect customers. All three spoke on the condition they not be named.

“It wasn’t a real priority backed up by resources,” said one security expert who recently left a senior position at Match Group, when asked about efforts to root out scammers on their apps. 

Kathryn Kosmides agreed. Kosmides runs a nonprofit called Garbo, which partnered with Match Group in 2021 to help improve security. In a press release announcing their collaboration, the company called her technology “thoughtful and groundbreaking.” She described the experience as dispiriting.

“They don’t want friction on these apps,” Kosmides said, explaining that “friction” is anything that makes it harder for people to sign up for a dating app. In the industry, she said, friction is “the F-word.”  

Match Group claims that’s false and said in a statement that, in fact, it employs a muscular regime to screen new users. 

The company, which operates dozens of popular dating apps including Tinder, Hinge, and The League, is the largest player in online dating. But scammers also have exploited other mainstream social media sites to search for potential victims. Kosmides said the reluctance to spend money on what tech firms call “trust and safety” is a problem industry-wide.

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“We’ve talked to every online dating platform out there from the largest, the smallest, and they all have similar thoughts and feelings around trust and safety,” Kosmides said. “Trust and safety is not generating enough revenue for them to invest in it.”

Law enforcement officials told CBS News the companies will need to play a critical role in any effort to contain the spread of romance and other scams.

“We think it’s really important for the tech companies to step up, and the financial institutions to step up and curtail the abuse of American citizens,” said James C. Barnacle, Jr. who oversees the financial crimes section of the FBI.

“Entitled to immunity”

One of the government agencies that takes a lead role in protecting consumers from fraud is the Federal Trade Commission. 

In 2019 the FTC filed a lawsuit against’s parent company in federal court in Texas alleging the company had failed to adequately screen out fraudulent accounts on the site, and had exposed non-subscribers to messages from accounts the company had identified as potential scammers.

Match Group responded in court filings, saying that while the company acknowledges some users attempt to join the site “for illegitimate reasons,” the company goes “to extraordinary lengths, at great expense to it, to block such users and protect legitimate subscribers and non-subscribers.”

The company also posted a statement online at the time accusing the FTC of having “relied on cherry-picked data to make outrageous claims and we intend to vigorously defend ourselves against these claims in court.”

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The case has moved slowly. U.S. District Judge Ed Kincaid denied efforts by the FTC to introduce over 100 pages of customer complaints that had been made available to the Better Business Bureau, arguing they were hearsay. And he dismissed a portion of the government’s case after the company argued it was protected by a provision of the law governing the internet known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The law protects platforms like from liability for wrongdoing committed by third parties on its site. Kincaid ruled that “Match is entitled to immunity.” 

A “common sense” effort in Congress

There have been efforts to force dating sites like to do more to protect users. U.S. Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Democrat from Colorado, said she has been frustrated by what she sees as tech companies shielding themselves with the federal immunity provision to avoid challenges like scammers cruising dating sites.

“There is absolutely a gap in responsibility and accountability for tech companies across the board,” Pettersen said. “They completely opt out of any responsibility.”

Pettersen has co-authored a bill that would force dating apps to notify users when they’ve been contacted by known scammers. 

She says it is a “common sense” measure to help protect dating app users. The legislation has bipartisan support, and has been voted out of committee in the House. But passage is still an open question.

“You are going up against big special interests,” she said. “There’s a lot of money behind some of these companies that ultimately, if they are opposed, will have big influence.”’s parent company has spent $9 million on lobbying fees in the last five years, according to congressional records. When asked if Match supported or opposed Petterson’s bill, a company spokesperson said its team was “in constructive conversations” with the lawmakers and have supported similar bills on the state level.

“Things happen in life”

Last month, Match Group hired the former head of security from the company formerly known as Twitter, Yoel Roth, to try and tackle the problem. He told Wired he hoped to speed up the company’s response to customer fraud complaints, and seek out solutions with other online dating platforms.

“I really think the trust and safety industry, collectively, needs to start to approach these as shared problems rather than something that each company handles in isolation,” he told Wired.

The week Roth’s hiring was announced, CBS News caught up with Match Group CEO Bernard Kim ahead of a public event. In a brief interview, he defended the company’s record, saying it has invested “a tremendous amount of capital, incredible talent on trust and safety. It is the first and foremost top priority for us as an organization.”

“If you look at our investment over the last several years, we’ve only increased our, the number of talented people, leadership that’s focused in this area,” Kim said.

Asked how he would address Match Group customers who have lost money to scammers, in some cases life savings, Kim said he had “a tremendous amount of empathy.”

“Look, I mean, things happen in life. That’s really difficult,” he said. “But I mean, our job is to keep people safe on our platforms. That is [the] most important thing to us.”

More from the CBS News Investigation:

CBS News investigative reporters Pat Milton, Clare Hymes and Alyssa Spady contributed to this report.

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