The risk and desire that drive dating apps

The promise of a better future or an escape from reality sometimes leads people down a path of financial fraud, assault, and emotional deception. The Hindu talks to people who have been victims, but survived to tell their stories, through the many vulnerabilities that surround online coupling

Updated - February 08, 2024 04:31 pm IST

Published - December 01, 2023 03:06 am IST

Dating apps make people more vulnerable to crime because of factors such as urban loneliness combined with the stigma of online engagement.

Dating apps make people more vulnerable to crime because of factors such as urban loneliness combined with the stigma of online engagement. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

What started as a ‘match’ on a dating app, and a secret rendezvous for Jaipur-based Dushyant Sharma, turned into a real-life horror story for his family. In a crime from 2018, Dushyant was brutally murdered by Priya Seth, her partner, and a third accomplice, after they extorted money from him. He was then 28, married with a child, and held a regular job as a marketing manager with a sandstone company.

On Tinder though, Dushyant posed as a wealthy businessman from Delhi. The brand describes itself as the “world’s most popular dating app, making it the place to meet new people”, with “55 billion matches to date”. On May 2, 2018, Dushyant got on his scooter to reach Seth’s rented accommodation, where they had agreed to meet. Call detail records suggest that the two had been in touch for about two weeks.

In a couple of hours, he called his father, Rameshwar Sharma, begging him to transfer ₹10 lakh into his account. “He sounded panicked. The phone was soon snatched by a lady (Seth), who after using a flurry of abuses, threatened to kill my son if I didn’t transfer the money,” Rameshwar says. He transferred ₹3 lakh, which was all he had. The next day, he was called to identify his son’s body, packed into a purple suitcase, and left at a deserted site on the outskirts of Jaipur. Rameshwar still cannot understand how his son was on a dating app. “He was a quiet boy. He had just a few friends,” he says.

Dushyant was one of Seth’s many victims of financial fraud. “She had planned, with her two accomplices, to trap wealthy men, hold them hostage, and ask for a hefty ransom. In this case, they eventually killed him,” says the officer in-charge of the investigation, Bhupender Singh, Station House Officer, Jaipur. Seth had a history of pretending to run an escort service, meeting men on this pretext, and then extorting money from them. All three were sentenced to life imprisonment on November 24 this year.

In the years since the crime, a few things have changed. The police, initially not clued in on the techno-social nuances of dating in India’s metros and the potential fallout, now understand how to gather data from mostly international dating apps by approaching country representatives. On their part, some dating app companies have mechanisms to store and track data from India.

In 2018, the police carried out their probe through on-ground evidence rather than online ‘footprints’. “We got to know that they had met on Tinder only when Priya Seth confessed during interrogation,” says Singh. The police could not find a “nodal officer” of Tinder in India then.

Statista, which collates statistics and reports, says that 70% of dating app usage takes place in India’s metro cities. In Delhi, there have been 19 sexual assault cases (from January to October 2023), where women met the men, who were allegedly perpetrators on these apps.

Delhi Police’s cybercrime wing, in at least three of the city’s 15 police districts, says it gets three to four calls a week per unit, claiming financial fraud on dating apps. Most are from men. However, those who register a financial crime from a dating app may be fewer than the total number of persons who are defrauded.

Nirali Bhatia, a cyber psychologist in Mumbai, who spends most of her work time counselling people who have been through cyber deceit and violence, says, “When a survivor says they have lost money from apps apart from dating apps, there is empathy for them. But when they say they have lost money on someone with whom they were sexually and romantically involved, there is judgement and mockery. This especially discourages men from sharing stories of deceit, as it doesn’t match society’s idea of masculinity.”

Emotional deceit

Rachita Agarwal (name changed to protect privacy), 35, has a well-paid, hectic corporate job. She lives alone, and in Delhi’s cold, clammy winter earlier this year, was feeling particularly vulnerable from a fallout with some of her closest female friends. The sadness from her past emotionally unavailable partner, the exhaustion of work, and the loneliness of living by herself, prompted Agarwal to download Bumble one night. “The idea was to find someone beyond the common circle of friends, with whom I could share a meaningful relationship,” she says.

Dating apps have grown in popularity over the past decade. People can upload a profile, and depending on their preferences, including age and interests, the app’s algorithm throws up potential matches. A quick swipe left indicates a disinterest in a profile; a right swipe is an expression of interest. The matched ‘couple’ can then chat on the app, exchange phone numbers, meet in person, or ‘unmatch’ if even one of them doesn’t want to continue.

Agarwal swiped right on a few profiles that she felt looked “decent” and “kind”, matched her urban sensibilities, and she shared social and cultural capital with. She recalls matching with Rajat Nagpal (name changed), a Noida resident, whose pictures with dogs had made her imagine he was empathetic. In their initial conversations, Nagpal charmed Agarwal. “He was very detail-oriented, and would listen carefully, then follow up on it later,” she says. In a matter of weeks, he had established an emotional connect with Agarwal and she had a degree of dependence on him.

Over drinks, food, and games, Nagpal would share stories of growing up in Madhya Pradesh, with his paternal uncle and aunt, and cousins. He would frequently take calls from his family in front of Agarwal. “He would also recall stories of his various missions as a merchant navy officer,” she remembers. His work-from-home schedule were red flags, but when Agarwal asked him about ship duty, he had excuses ready.

After a couple of months, a misunderstanding, and a fight, Nagpal attempted a reconciliation and told Agarwal that his name was not Rajat and that he was actually a salesperson. He added that he had lived away from his parents since his father had been abusive, and that after being rejected by his ex-girlfriend’s father for not being a naval officer, he had borrowed his stories and identity to deceive many women on dating apps for two to three years.

Agarwal says she felt like a fool. A couple of weeks later though, Nagpal got in touch again. “I was shifting houses, and he knew I was extremely anxious about the process, so he asked if he could help,” she recalls. She agreed. When they were together in her house with packed-up boxes, her phone screen lit up and Nagpal saw a notification from a dating app. “He lost his temper and started screaming at me. He took my phone, pinned me to the wall, and forcefully unlocked it. In a fit of rage, he punched the wall and broke his knuckles,” says a perturbed Agarwal.

For the next 15-20 minutes, he paced the room, reading every text on the dating app. “He then put keywords like his name on the WhatsApp search and read everything that was spoken about him,” she adds. “In that moment, there was no help. I couldn’t make any phone calls because my phone was seized, couldn’t fetch any object to hit him with because the entire house was packed, and couldn’t even call the caretaker because he was on leave,” says Agarwal, anxious from thinking about the incident.

All she had was a knife from the kitchen, which she put under her pillow. The next morning, despite his apologies, she decided to have nothing to do with him. “So I booked a cab, dropped him at the hospital, and left for my new apartment,” she says. She did not consider calling the police. “All I wanted was to get him out of my life. Throughout the cab ride, I tried processing what had just happened, but my mind couldn’t process anything,” she adds.

The fallout

Bhatia says Agarwal’s ordeal is not unique. “Cases of romantic deceit rely on social engineering, where the perpetrator picks up likeable traits to develop a deeper emotional connect with the victim. This makes them dependent on their attention and validation, to further their ill intentions of deceit,” she says, adding that there may be very few red flags with habitual offenders.

It took many months for Agarwal to open up to her close friends and share her ordeal. “When you are deceived by a partner who you met through a common friend, the onus is on the deceiver. However, when deceived by a person online, the onus falls on the victim,” says filmmaker-activist-journalist Bishakha Datta, who co-founded Point of View, an organisation working for the digital rights of women and queer people. She feels that while both physical and digital spaces have risks and pleasures, there is more stigma associated with online engagement. This, along with loneliness, enables abusers to perpetrate emotional, physical, and financial fraud on these apps for years. Last month, the World Health Organization declared loneliness a global public health threat.

Agarwal’s friends didn’t mock her, but she felt ashamed. Telling her family about her experience was out of the question — they didn’t know she was on the app. Now, when she dates, she only half-jokingly asks men for their Aadhaar card. But Datta says, “Navigating a dating app is like walking down a busy street. Not every time is it possible or desirable to look over our shoulders expecting fraud, deception, and abuse, and further gaslighting ourselves to see it coming.”

Adding to the list of vulnerabilities of people on dating apps are queer or married men being easier sextortion targets than singles. Apps such as Gleeden and Ashley Madison, which call themselves extramarital dating sites, could put a great number of people at risk. While many cis-gendered people hide their identities with fraud or falsehood as motives, queer people may change theirs to protect themselves.

Rajesh Deo, Deputy Commissioner of Police (South East Delhi), says that a group of four men was arrested in May this year for running a gay sextortion racket in the city on Grindr, a dating app for queer men. “The group would invite them to a secluded location, where other gang members would be waiting,” says Deo. “They were sure the queer men would not go to the police, so the gang would record them in compromising positions and threaten to expose their sexuality, unless they shelled out money,” he says.

Dating apps respond

Despite these crimes, people using dating apps like Tinder, Hinge, and Bumble unanimously say that after reporting profiles of the alleged abusers, they received no feedback from the companies on actions taken. However, a Bumble spokesperson says that if a person unmatches an alleged perpetrator and reports it, the conversations between the two are preserved if the victim chooses to file a police complaint.

When the perpetrator has ‘unmatched’ with the victim, leaving no trace of their presence in their life, especially when phone numbers or social media handles have not been exchanged, Delhi Police’s cyber wing says it issues a legal notice to the dating app to divulge chat history. “If there is an unavailability of data, we track CCTV footage and other physical leads to find the perpetrator,” says a senior officer.

The unnamed Bumble spokesperson says that when they do “receive a report of sexual assault”, they “block the party and preserve data related to their account”, so that they can “respond to valid legal requests”. The company did not describe what invalid legal requests could be.

A Tinder spokesperson says that Match Group, its American parent company that owns a clutch of dating sites, including OkCupid and Hinge, has created a portal to respond to requests for information from law enforcement agencies. These calculated email responses, with no names or faces to take responsibility, are eerily similar to the bot-like in-app feedback when people report crime or deception on them.

Bumble and Tinder did not respond to pointed questions from The Hindu on how many users they had in India, the number of profiles reported in-app, or which States and cities in the country had the most reported profiles.

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