There are millions of fish in the sea, and dating apps have made it easier to quickly find and connect with a lot more of those would-be catches.
But the ease of creating an online dating profile—and the lack of oversight by the companies running such services—means that users can, and often do, misrepresent themselves. People lie about their age, height, weight, and income level. Some claim they know celebrities or have a more glamorous job than they actually do—anything to help them stand out or seem more attractive.
Some even lie about their identity, creating false personas in order to take advantage of people, financially or otherwise. These imposters are often called “catfish,” and their scams are on the rise. Last year, the FBI received nearly 15,000 complaints about romance scams, about 2,500 more than in 2015. The scams reported last year swindled the victims out of more than $230 million, according to an article on the FBI’s website.
Scammers usually target older women who are widowed or divorced, according to the FBI article. These women are usually educated and at least somewhat tech savvy. But emotion can cloud reason when it comes to matters of the heart.
“They’re looking for love,” says Julie Nashawaty, founder and CEO of Boston startup Aste. “They’re someone that can be tricked easily.”
Nashawaty’s company offers a service to online daters that scours public information found online—court records, sex offender registries, social media profiles, and more—to check for red flags about their matches. One of the things that has surprised her is how many imposters are on these sites, and how deliberate their schemes are.
“There’s a whole 30-day plan to scam someone out of money,” Nashawaty says. “It is so calculated. It is a science.”
It’s hard to know for sure how often people lie in their online dating profiles, but there have been some small studies on the subject. In a 2011 survey of 1,000 men and women in the U.S. and U.K., 53 percent of the Americans admitted they lied in their profiles, while 44 percent of the U.K. users said they lied. The next year, three professors published a study of 78 online daters that found around 80 percent of them lied about their height, weight, or age.
Nashawaty wouldn’t share how many users her team of about 20 freelance contractors—who are not licensed private investigators, just skilled Internet sleuths—have investigated for clients since Aste launched in January. But, among the reports her company has run so far, 45 percent of the investigated users were “hiding something,” she says. That includes 9 percent who are married; 9 percent who have arrest records; 11 percent who shared information with their matches that conflicted with what Aste found out about them online; and 16 percent who appeared to be catfish, she says.
Nashawaty, the former director of operations at Boston machine-learning software startup Indico, has firsthand experience with these issues. Last year, she connected online with a man who seemed like a perfect match. But a couple of days before they were supposed to go on a date, she researched him online and discovered that several months earlier, he had been arrested for allegedly robbing a bank, she says. The arrest apparently took place just before he was supposed to get married. He hadn’t told her about the arrest or the engagement. She canceled their date.
That led her to start Aste, she says. The idea is that online dating is becoming a more common way to spark relationships, but there aren’t many safeguards ensuring users are representing themselves accurately. The site eHarmony says it performs some screening of its users, including checking U.S. sex offender registries. But other popular dating sites—including OkCupid, Tinder, Match.com, and Zoosk—don’t conduct background checks. All of these companies offer safety tips for users, and some encourage users to research their matches themselves.
After our initial conversation, Xconomy followed up with Nashawaty via e-mail to get her thoughts about deceit in online dating, the broader effects of the industry, and the evolution of how people find love. Here are three highlights of that exchange:
Xconomy: Has anything surprised you about the catfishing?
Julie Nashawaty: It doesn’t matter how smart or successful you are, anyone can be a victim. Most people say, “People are really that stupid to fall for these things?” It’s not “stupid” anymore, it’s a real con that can happen to anyone. [One] woman lost $2 million.
Predators prey on nice people with large hearts, and when they have no one to turn to for a gut check, they’re relying on what the scammer has promised them and on the love to come. It’s hard to explain matters of the heart, never mind wanting to help another person in need that might be your future. It’s sickening.
X: What effect do you think online dating has had on society?
JN: I think in the on-demand world we’re used to having unlimited options, where we have access to something new, shiny, and immediate with a click of a button. Once you introduce that concept into human relationships, I think a lot gets lost. We’re now swiping for love in our sweats. We think that “plans” are “Netflix and chill.” And if your date isn’t your version of perfect, you conjure up the idea that there’s someone better out there for you, and all you need to do is download an app again and swipe away ‘til you’re sitting there with a new person, wondering why they aren’t perfect either. Then the process repeats itself.
I think we somehow stopped treating each other well in the process and now, as a society, act as if most people are replaceable.
I think online dating can work and be a powerful and wonderful way to meet someone, just as long as both people are honest about their wants, needs, and expectations, and are real about wanting something real.
X: What’s your prediction for the next evolution in the way people find love? What comes after online dating?
JN: I think we’re going to start introducing the human element back into online dating. We’ll start using matchmakers more, we’ll have professionals that vet our dates, and we’ll be a little more specific with what we’re looking for. Though I still wish there was a way to know if the hot guy at my spin class is in a relationship or not. Hopefully someone solves that problem for me.