Utah researchers have linked hundreds of rapes to dating sites. A lawmaker is trying to make these apps safer.

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Five years ago, Julie Valentine, a forensic nurse and professor at Brigham Young University, noticed a disturbing trend: More and more patients were reporting being sexually assaulted by someone they had met on a dating app.

The sighting raised a series of research questions for Valentine. How to track these attacks? Are they different from other sexual assault cases?

To answer these questions, Valentine decided to study nearly 2,000 reported rape cases in which the perpetrator was an acquaintance, examining assault records in Utah from 2017 to 2020. In 274 of those cases , or 14%, the perpetrators had found the victims through a dating app and attacked them the first time they met, she said.

The researchers also noticed that these rapes tended to be much more violent than average – and that the victims suffered more serious injuries.

“The results really led us to the conclusion that violent predators are using these dating apps as hunting grounds for vulnerable victims,” ​​Valentine said.

Now the BYU professor is backing a bill to make online dating safer.

Introduced by Representative Angela Romero, the legislation would require such apps to post prominent warnings, safety tips and instructions on how to report violent or fraudulent users. Sites should also notify people if they have sent messages to a banned user.

Proponents of the bill say they don’t know how much these warnings will increase safety, but argue that if they help even one person, it’s worth it.

“It would be really nice [if] people could just use a dating app or use an online service and not have to worry about their safety,” said Romero, D-Salt Lake City. “But unfortunately, in the world we live in now, that is not the case.”

While Valentine focuses on dating apps and sexual assault, Romero said people have also been scammed by scammers they meet on one of those platforms.

Several Utah women have even been murdered, including MacKenzie Lueck, a University of Utah student whose burnt body was found in a canyon in 2019. “babies” with wealthier romantic partners.

Ajayi, who pleaded guilty to murdering Lueck, was later charged with sexually assaulting another woman he met through a dating app.

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ashley Fine speaks during a vigil for Mackenzie Lueck at the University of Salt Lake City on Monday, July 1, 2019.

Another Utah woman, Ashlyn Black, was choked and stabbed to death in 2020 while on a date with a man she met on Tinder. Layton man Ethan Hunsacker pleaded guilty to but mentally ill last year.

And Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said his office prosecuted a serial rapist about eight years ago who used dating sites to meet and later attack multiple victims.

Darcy Goddard, chief policy adviser for the Salt Lake County prosecutor’s office, said she recently asked her colleagues how often a dating site featured in one of their criminal cases. Prosecutors in his office were able to find more than a dozen examples out of the blue, said Goddard, who worked with Romero on HB352.

Other district attorney’s offices in the state also told him that they had recently handled several cases involving someone victimizing someone they met through one of those apps.

In most cases, the aggressor was a man who attacked a woman or a younger man. Many involved sexual abuse, but Gill says there have also been instances of domestic abuse in a relationship that started on a dating app.

Goddard suspects that COVID-19 has made it easier for predators to target people through dating sites. Tinder, Hinge and Bumble, for example, reported huge spikes in activity early in the pandemic as people physically isolated themselves and moved towards social interaction.

For Gill, a pop-up safety notification or other highly visible warning should help empower app users and put these risks in mind when interacting with potential dates.

“People are free to make their decisions as they want and they see fit,” he said. “But I think people also have to recognize that there is this dark side that has these collateral issues, which are not hypothetical or academic for us. We as prosecutors see this.

“Not to Blame”

Several other states have passed laws similar to the one Romero is trying to pass.

New Jersey has enacted a law requiring dating sites to post safety information and a prominent disclosure about whether or not they conduct criminal background checks on users. In Vermont, policymakers required dating apps to notify consumers if they interacted with a banned user for misrepresenting their identity or posing other fraud risks.

Goddard said Romero’s bill draws primarily from laws in Texas, Colorado and Arizona.

Some states have considered laws that would require dating apps to perform criminal background checks — but Goddard says she worries those rules could create a false sense of security for consumers.

“People use fake identities online all the time, and background checks of people with similar names can be wrong,” she said. “So it’s not even something we considered including in this bill.”

They also decided not to expand the bill to other forms of social media. Valentine said she tried to identify the sexual assaults that occurred after a victim and assailant met on Snapchat or other social media sites, but “it was really hard to unravel that information.”

She thinks it’s the right decision to focus HB352 on dating sites because, unlike most other forms of social media, these are spaces specifically for meeting strangers.

The state’s Consumer Protection Division would be responsible for enforcing the bill’s requirements, though prosecutors can also take action against a non-compliant platform if they are handling a criminal case involving people who met on this website. Dating services that flout the bill’s mandate could face up to $250 in fines for each user in Utah.

Tinder, Hinge and Bumble did not respond to the Salt Lake Tribune’s request for comment on the bill. However, Mark Buse of the Match Group – parent company of Tinder, Hinge, OkCupid and other dating sites – voiced support for the measure at a legislative hearing last week.

The bill passed the House and is heading to the Senate for consideration.

When Valentine was conducting her research, which is expected to be published soon, she found that most platforms had security information. But it’s often lacking and buried deep in websites, she said, and there’s usually no clear process for reporting dangerous users.

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nursing professor Julie Valentine poses for a portrait at Brigham Young University on Friday, June 3, 2016.

Under Romero’s bill, on the other hand, the information should be hard to miss.

According to the latest version of HB352, a dating service should notify someone if they have contacted a banned user and send an alert that the person may have used a fake identity or attempted to scam other people. .

The bill’s safety notice would remind users to follow precautions when exchanging information or meeting someone through the app and would discourage them from sharing a last name, email or personal address. , phone number or other identifying information in their profile.

It warns people to stop communicating with a user who pressures them for financial information and that they should never send money to anyone they meet through the site.

When meeting someone in person, users should notify a family member or friend of the time and location of the date and arrange their own transportation. They should also meet the person in a public place, the notification would say.

The notice would also provide information about reporting sexual assaults or other crimes and emphasize that the victim is not to blame.

While Romero and his associates crafted the safety warning provisions, they made a concerted effort to avoid victim-blaming language or any wording that might make someone feel responsible for the crimes committed against them.

“We have to be very careful about that,” Valentine said, adding that feelings of guilt or shame can discourage a victim from reporting an assault.

Romero said she would never blame a victim for a crime committed because of a dating app. But she hopes a security notification could give users a helpful reminder before they start swiping and matching.

“These apps and services are there to connect people,” she said. “But we also want to make sure people are safe.”