How dating apps are navigating potential swindlers, Marketing & Advertising News, ET BrandEquity | #lovescams | #datingapps


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In February, Netflix released a show that made it to its top 10 list in 92 countries. The Tinder Swindler, a true-crime documentary, relived the story of Israeli conman Simon Leviev — real name Shimon Hayut — who allegedly scammed women out of millions of dollars.

Leviev, 31, who alleged he was the millionaire son of diamond mogul Lev Leviev, led women on after meeting them on dating app Tinder. A UK tabloid reported that after convincing victims that they were in meaningful long-term relationships with him, he scammed them of money with fake scenarios involving diamond feuds, deadly ‘enemies’ and a ‘danger to his life’.

Came, scammed and conquered

In just one week, the show racked up 45.8 million hours of viewing — and Tinder finally banned Leviev from its platform.

As numbers show, there are versions of Levievs out there. According to the US Federal Trade Commission, frauds related to romance have skyrocketed in recent years. In the past five years alone, people have reported losing $1.3 billion to love cheats, a figure more than any other FTC fraud category.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) sent out a warning last year, cautioning people against rising instances of ‘romance frauds’. The FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) received over 1,800 complaints related to online romance scams, resulting in losses of approximately $133.4 million.

Closer home, Indians are equally at risk from such frauds, says NS Nappinai, Supreme Court advocate and founder of Cyber Saathi (an initiative focusing on cyber safety on digital spaces). “Cases range from money frauds where miscreants use online dating and matrimonial sites to first build relationships. Then they either use them for sexual favours or to siphon money from victims on false claims. These could be emergency financial help or assistance under various pretexts including medical emergencies,” she says.

Last year, The Times of India reported that the Madhya Pradesh cyber cell headquarters had busted an international syndicate allegedly involving Chinese and Pakistani nationals who were ‘romance scamming’ rich Indian businessmen by engaging with them on online dating sites. “There are organised criminal gangs that look for victims and then use dating apps as a mechanism to carry out criminal activities,” says Ashish K Singh, managing partner at Capstone Legal, whose firm’s criminal practice has seen a five-fold rise in catfishing and honeytrap cases.

“Scammers and fraudsters on these platforms brainwash users,” observes Pune-based cyber-crime lawyer Rajas Pingle. He recalls a case involving a 40-year-old client who refused to believe that her prospective suitor, masquerading as a UK-based doctor, had conned her out of Rs. 40 lakh and vanished without a trace.

Romcom turned ‘rom con’

If what an app user sees is not what they might get, what is the platforms’ onus to safeguard customers from harm?

Platforms are protected under the safe harbour provision of Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000, says Nappinai. “This means that they will not be liable for third-party content hosted on their platforms. This is irrespective of whether there are disclaimers or not.”

Nappinai says platforms may not be able to help in cases where financial frauds are involved. However, victims can and ought to report fraudsters to the platforms to enable them to take down or block such fake IDs. In cases where the user approaches the platform seeking help and is either ignored or denied, action can be initiated against the dating or matrimonial platform, adds Pingle.

Some may argue that it is the duty of the dating app to vet the user profiles uploaded onto their platform beforehand, but Singh disagrees. He doesn’t believe that online platforms should be held criminally liable for actions that are not directly in their control. “Failure to take proper measures can come within the ambit of civil liability. For criminal liability, the touchstone is Section 120-B (conspiracy) and Section 34 (common intention). Both these offences require an active act or an overt act leading to a common intention or/and criminal conspiracy. I don’t think the failure to take appropriate steps to do background checks can fall within the ambit of criminal liability,” says Singh.

Measure of caution

On their part, dating and marriage apps say that their precautionary measures include initiatives that educate users about how to conduct and keep themselves safe.

Bumble, for example, a while ago launched a safety handbook that provides simple, actionable information to educate people about their legal rights and ways to exercise them when faced with online hate and discrimination.

Tinder’s spokesperson Papri Dev shares that over the past two years, the platform has deployed over 20 new security measures for its users. Dev makes a special mention of Tinder’s video-call feature that prompts the user with the option of continuing with a call, or reporting misuse or harassment from within the call itself if things go south.

Tinder chooses to not comment on The Tinder Swindler and maintains that it has a zero-tolerance policy in such cases.

Most dating and matrimonial apps concur and emphasise that of all their safety and security protocols, background checks and verification of display pictures top the list.

TrulyMadly’s co-founder and CEO Snehil Khanor shares that the app rejects around 42% of users who apply to become a part of the platform. “The moderation happens across five layers: It is checked that the picture is of a human’s and not that of a celebrity. We ensure that there is no obscenity in the photo, that it doesn’t contain any text or number, and finally match the gender with the specified gender,” Khanor says.

He adds that the platform has a trust-score option, where users can build the trust score by linking their social media accounts to authenticate themselves.

The platform also actively screens for suspicious behaviour — words like ‘payment’ and ‘transaction’ feature on their list of problematic keywords. When these routinely come up in multiple conversations, they flag the user or block that account. In instances of suspicious behaviour without sufficient evidence, the app cautions people interacting with that profile.

Shaadi.com’s AVP Adhish Zaveri shares that his platform also follows a five-step process to eliminate misuse. These involve machine verification, manual verification, rule-based screening, community-reported misuse and safety guidance and outreach. “As a result, a very small fraction (< 0.003%) of people on the platform are identified as cases of misuse today and are promptly removed from the system,” Zaveri says.

Extramarital dating app Gleeden, where profile pictures are not mandatory and users get to know each other solely via conversations, says it investigates every profile to “guarantee a community made only by real and motivated people”.

Members can easily report abuses and misbehaviours and are very proactive when it comes to safeguarding the standards of their online community, says Sybil Shiddell, Gleeden’s country manager, India. As an added safety measure, Gleeden allows women to block unsolicited profiles and put them on their private ‘black lists’.

But despite the stringent measures, the likes of masterful confidence tricksters like Leviev still manage to slip in with the intention of making off with people’s affections and money.

“It becomes very important to mandate the ID check,” asserts Pawan Gupta, matrimonial app Betterhalf.ai’s co-founder and CEO. “And as a company, to be okay with saying no to users,” he adds.

There has been a sharp rise in cases of extortion and blackmail of women through Instagram in the past few years. The incidents range from morphing pictures to creation of fake profiles and sharing ‘objectionable material’ with friends, an analysis of reported cases show.





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