Tinder has changed how an entire generation meets new people.
It’s now one of the world’s highest-earning apps, raking in nearly $2 billion last year.
Amid the loneliness and isolation of COVID-19 lockdowns, paid Tinder subscriptions increased almost 20 per cent in the year to June.
But a joint Four Corners and triple j Hack investigation has found Tinder is enabling sexual predators to thrive on its app.
More than 400 people responded to Hack’s public callout about safety on dating apps — the majority said they had experienced sexual assault or harassment.
231 people said they had used Tinder.
Of the 48 people who told us they reported a sexual offence to Tinder…
…only 11 received a response from the app.
Almost all of those who did hear back from Tinder described a generic message response that provided no information about what, if any, action was taken.
Emily was one of these people. Like the millions of other Australians who have used dating apps, she wanted to meet new people.
But she was raped by a man she met on Tinder.
“All of my friends had been using it at the time and they all said it was amazing, and it was a perfect way, and the only way at the moment, to meet people for our generation.”
A few months ago, a series of texts posted on Facebook caught Emily’s attention.
A woman had posted screenshots of abusive messages she’d received from a man she met on Tinder.
The post was flooded with comments from women who’d received similar messages from the same man.
Emily recognised him.
This man was her rapist.
Emily’s Tinder ordeal began when she matched with a man who had appeared in a hot firefighters calendar.
“He was incredibly buff … I remember seeing that and thinking, ‘Oh my God, that’s impressive. That’s a respectable job. That’s something that [makes] people think … He’s a good person,” she said.
Warning: This article contains descriptions of rape.
Emily’s Tinder match immediately started asking her for explicit videos and photos, but she told him she didn’t feel comfortable with his requests.
The man reassured her, and Emily agreed to go to the firefighter’s home.
“Basically, as soon as we went into his house, he was very forthright with what he wanted. He wanted to have sex … He wanted to do the things to me that I said that I didn’t feel comfortable with,” she said.
“It wasn’t something that I wanted. It wasn’t something that I said he could do. He just started to rape me.”
Emily said she didn’t say no because she was “completely petrified” and froze.
“He was so rough. He just didn’t stop,” she said.
“Halfway through when he was assaulting me, he picked up his phone from the table and said, ‘just hold on, I just need to take some photos.’ He kept his hand holding me down as I tried to squirm and get out of the camera lens.”
Emily was raped three times that morning and she said it was so painful, she bled for days afterwards.
Her story fits what researchers say is an emerging trend of people being sexually assaulted by someone they’ve met on a dating app.
A study led by Janine Rowse from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine has found most sexual assaults facilitated by a dating app happened on a first face-to-face meeting and the majority of those were at the alleged offender’s house.
Dr Rowse said because they had exchanged messages beforehand, the victims felt like they knew that person.
“It’s been described as the online disinhibition effect where you have a heightened feeling of trust after communicating with someone,” Dr Rowse said.
Forensic doctor Janine Rowse treats women after they have been sexually assaulted. (Four Corners)
Emily said she later reported her rapist to Tinder.
“I remember it took me a long time even trying to find how to report someone,” she said.
“I wrote down his occupation and said, ‘This man is dangerous. This man is a threat and will hurt people if given the chance.’
“I just got an automated response, just a refresh of the page saying, ‘Thanks for submitting.’
“I never heard anything else.
“It felt like a waste of time. It just felt like, why bother? Why did I bother? Nothing is going to happen from this.”
Emily’s experience was something which came up repeatedly in Hack’s callout.
The joint investigation found Tinder was failing to respond to victims who reported abusive behaviour.
No response. “Thanks. We can’t tell you what happens from here but we take this seriously”
[I got] a generic response that they were “looking into it but I would not be informed of the outcome”.
Rosalie Gillett has researched women’s safety on Tinder at the Queensland University of Technology and said the app’s failure to respond to complaints is a major concern.
“It tells those women who’ve made their reports that they’re actually not justified, and that they weren’t serious enough to actually warrant a report,” she said.
“It’s also really dangerous, because it tells users who are engaging in that harassing and abusive behaviour, that it is acceptable, and they don’t need to change anything on that platform.”
The Four Corners and Hack investigation contacted more than 90 former staff of Tinder’s parent company, Match Group, to investigate how the company deals with complaints. Five agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.
Staff said the safety teams were under-resourced and overwhelmed with their workload, meaning reports of sexual assault were at times buried.
I don’t think anyone outside the moderation and customer support teams gave a shit about user safety.
There’s nothing stopping people from signing up again with a new IP address, a lot of people dodge bans this way.
They said they couldn’t completely ban someone from a dating platform because it involved banning a user’s IP address, a number assigned to each device or network, and the number would only last for up to 90 days before changing.
Tinder allows perpetrators to delete evidence
Along with failing to act on complaints, the Four Corners and Hack investigation has found the app’s design helps sexual predators cover their tracks.
Tinder allows offenders to use the ‘unmatch’ function to block their victims after a rape to delete any trace of their prior communication.
That’s what happened to Brooke who went on three dates with a man she met on Tinder in 2017.
Brooke was sexually assaulted by a man she met on Tinder. Supplied
“We went back to his place where I met his grandma that he lived with. And we had tea and chilled,” she said.
On their third date, they went for a drive. He pulled into some secluded bushland and Brooke said when she asked to go home, the man threw her phone out the window.
“Once the phone smashed, I was like, oh crap, now I’m in the middle of nowhere … and with no working phone, no way to message any friends or anything, and no actual idea of where I was.”
Brooke said the man pinned her down in the backseat of the car and took off her shorts.
Despite her pleas for him to stop, he raped her.
The next morning, Brooke wanted to report the attack to Tinder but the man had unmatched her, deleting their entire chat history.
Brooke couldn’t even find his profile.
She was gutted.
“This was the only way to identify who he was and what he did … and he just completely erased any evidence of himself,” she said.
“That was probably the main reason that I didn’t go to the police because I didn’t have his number, I didn’t know his last name.
“It was completely heart-wrenching because there was no proof that we had even spoke to each other.”
Brooke wasn’t able to track down her rapist after he ‘unmatched’ on the Tinder app. (Four Corners)
US dating industry consultant Steve Dean said the unmatching feature was created to give Tinder users the power to delete people who they feel unsafe talking to, but sex offenders are using the function to their advantage.
“I don’t think that that should ever be a possibility, that someone can simply escape their bad behaviour by blocking the person they just abused,” he said.
Tinder making billions
While Tinder has been allowing sex offenders to avoid accountability and failing to respond to complaints, its revenue has been soaring.
It makes money by getting users to sign up for paid extra features like boosting their account to be a ‘top profile’ in an area or to see who has ‘liked’ their profile.
“If they make a lot of money from ads and people paying for the premium accounts, there could at least be a bit more transparency about what’s actually happening when you do try and take those steps to report someone,” Brooke said.
Mr Dean said Tinder was built to be addictive, driving users to pay for more.
“Users just get stuck in swiping mode, and then they’ll hit their end of the day where they have no more swipes left, and maybe they’ll pay for more,” Mr Dean said.
Last year, the US Federal Trade Commission launched legal action against Match Group for using fake love interest ads to trick hundreds of thousands of users into paying for subscriptions using messages the company knew were from scammers.
Erin Turner from consumer group CHOICE said Tinder acts like it’s above the law.
“It’s a great example of how this company is putting profits over very legitimate interests of their users. It’s really taking advantage of them,” she said.
“This company doesn’t tell us what it’s doing.”
Serial rapist lured women on Tinder
In 2018, Melbourne man Glenn Hartland, dubbed ‘the Tinder Rapist’, was convicted of raping three women and indecently assaulting another he met on the app between 2014 and 2016.
In May 2019, Glenn Hartland was sentenced to 14 years in jail.
During his sentencing, County Court Judge Paul Higham described dating apps as “a fertile landscape in which predators can roam.”
One of his victims, Lauren*, said while Hartland was on bail, he continued to try and lure women on the app using multiple profiles under different names.
“That was really scary … Here was a man that was violent towards all of us, who knew we were part of the case against him,” she said.
“We were tracking him and getting updated profiles that demonstrated changes of name, using the same photographs, changing his hobbies and status, likes and dislikes.”
Match Group’s Safety Policy says the company prides itself on its “support to and cooperation with law enforcement”, and that it stands “ready to assist in any active investigations”.
But NSW Police Assistant Commissioner Stuart Smith told Four Corners and Hack that dating app companies frequently failed to provide information in sexual assault investigations.
“There’s a contact email and they’re supposed to get back to us, there’s always difficulties with that process,” he said.
“We expect over time that there will be more cooperation with the dating app companies, and certainly the fallback is, if we can’t cooperate then we’ll find a legislative [way].”
Match Group declined Four Corners’ repeated requests for an interview, but said in a statement:
“We’re outraged that singles anywhere may experience fear, discomfort, or worse when looking to meet someone special, and we will always work to improve our systems to make sure everyone on our apps feels respected and safe.”
How Emily got her rapist off Tinder
For Emily, greater protections for people on Tinder can’t come soon enough.
Without Tinder’s help to get her rapist off the app, she frantically messaged people who had commented on the Facebook post saying they’d been harassed by her rapist.
Multiple women shared their experiences with each other and reported his behaviour.
“They went to Tinder and reported this man, and I did the same thing,” she said.
Emily again reported him to Tinder and this time actually got a response.
Emily was astounded it took several women complaining for her report to be taken seriously.
“It shouldn’t take more than one woman to take someone off a dating app if he has assaulted someone. Why is it so hard? Why did nothing happen the last time?” she said.
Along with experts and other sexual assault survivors, Emily wants Tinder to be held accountable.
“It makes me mad that this platform is making money off the people who are being hurt, and then they can’t even respond properly when people are hurt. What are you doing with your money?” she said.
“Why are you not employing or having services to help people if you have so much money?”
Watch the full investigation on Four Corners tonight at 8:30pm on ABC TV or livestream on the Four Corners Facebook page.
*Name of sexual assault survivor has been changed to protect her identity
If you or someone you know needs help:
- Call 1800 RESPECT or visit their website
- Lifeline: call 13 11 14 or visit their website
- Survivors of childhood trauma can contact the Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380 or visit their website
- Kids Helpline: call 1800 55 1800 or visit their website
Reporter: Avani Dias
Producer: Ali Russell
Researchers: Ange McCormack and Stephanie March
Digital producer: Laura Gartry
Designer: Alex Palmer
Developers: Katia Shatoba and Nathanael Scott
Additional research: James Purtill