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

Rep. Angela Romero’s bill would require apps to post safety notifications for users of the dating apps’ platforms.

FILE - In this Aug. 11, 2019, file photo, a man uses a cell phone in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File)

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

The observation raised a set of research questions for Valentine. How can these attacks be tracked? Are they different from other cases of sexual assault?

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

Researchers also noticed these rapes tended to be much more violent than average — and that the victims had suffered more severe injuries.

“The findings really have led us to the conclusion that violent predators use these dating apps as hunting grounds for vulnerable victims,” Valentine said.

Now the BYU professor is getting behind a bill that aims to make online dating safer.

Introduced by Rep. Angela Romero, the legislation would require these apps to post prominent warnings, safety guidance and instructions about how to report users who are violent or committing fraud. The sites would also have to notify people if they’ve been messaging with a banned user.

The bill’s supporters say they’re not sure how much these warnings will increase safety — but argue that if they help even one person, it’s worthwhile.

“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,” Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said. “But unfortunately, in the world we live in now, that’s not the case.”

While Valentine’s focus is on dating apps and sexual assault, Romero said people have also been swindled out of money by fraudsters they met on one of these platforms.

Several Utah women have even been murdered, including MacKenzie Lueck, a University of Utah student whose burned body was found in a canyon in 2019. Lueck first connected with her killer, Ayoola Ajayi, through SeekingArrangement, a website that says it helps link “sugar babies” with wealthier romantic partners.

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

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

Another Utah woman, Ashlyn Black, was choked and fatally stabbed in 2020 while on a date with a man she met on Tinder. The Layton man, Ethan Hunsacker, pleaded guilty 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’d used dating sites to meet and later attack multiple victims.

Darcy Goddard, chief policy adviser for the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office, said she recently asked her colleagues how often a dating website figured in one of their criminal cases. Prosecutors in her office were able to come up with more than a dozen examples off the top of their heads, said Goddard, who has been working with Romero on HB352.

Other district attorney offices in the state also told her they’d recently handled several cases that involved someone victimizing a person they’d met through one of these apps.

In most cases, the perpetrator was a man who was victimizing a woman or younger man. Many involved sexual violence, but Gill says there have also been cases of domestic violence in a relationship that began on a dating app.

Goddard suspects COVID-19 has made it easier for predators to target people through dating sites. Tinder, Hinge and Bumble, for instance, reported huge spikes in activity in the early part of the pandemic, as people were physically isolating and heading online for social interaction.

To Gill, a pop-up safety notification or some other highly visible warning should help empower app users and bring these risks to the front of their minds as they’re interacting with potential dates.

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

‘Not to blame’

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

New Jersey has enacted a law mandating that dating websites post safety information and a prominent disclosure about whether or not it conducts criminal background checks on users. In Vermont, policymakers have required dating apps to notify consumers if they’ve been interacting with a user banned 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 force dating apps to conduct criminal background checks — but Goddard says she worries those rules would create a false sense of security for consumers.

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

They also decided not to broaden the bill to other forms of social media. Valentine said she tried to identify sexual assaults that happened after a victim and perpetrator met on Snapchat or other social media sites, but “it was really difficult to tease out that information.”

She believes it’s the right decision to focus HB352 on dating sites because, unlike most other forms of social media, those are spaces specifically devoted to meetings between strangers.

The state’s consumer protection division would be in charge of enforcing the bill’s requirements, although prosecutors could also take action against a non-compliant platform if they’re handling a criminal case involving people who met on that website. Dating services that flout the bill’s mandate could face up to $250 in fines for each Utah user.

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

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

When Valentine was conducting her research, which should be published soon, she found that most platforms do have safety information. But it’s often lacking and buried deep in the websites, she said, and there’s typically 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 Friday, June 3, 2016.

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

A dating service would have to notify someone if they’ve been communicating with a banned user and send an alert that the person might have been using a fake identity or trying to defraud others, according to the latest version of HB352.

The bill’s safety notification 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 home address, phone number or other identifying information in their profile.

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

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

The notice would also offer information about reporting sexual assault or other crimes and stress that the victim is not to blame.

As Romero and her collaborators have crafted the safety warning provisions, they’ve 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 cautious in that,” Valentine said, adding that emotions of guilt or shame can discourage a victim from reporting an assault.

Romero said she’d never blame a victim for a crime perpetrated because of a dating app. But she hopes a safety notification might give users a helpful reminder before they start swiping and matching.

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

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