Half of users scammed on online dating sites

Love letters: Before Tinder, Meg Ryan fell in love via email in 1998 romcom You’ve Got Mail.

Spamming, scamming, and fake profiles asking for cash. As online dating soars in popularity, new research reveals its many risks. Are algorithms the best route to love anyway?

‘Some romantics complain that we’re too commercial,’ says Jeff Tarr, a student at Harvard. ‘But we’re not trying to take the love out of love; we’re just trying to make it more efficient. We supply everything but the spark.’

What year is it? 1991, at the dawn of the internet? 2009, as Apple first tells the public that, no matter their problem, ‘there’s an app for that’?

Wrong. It is 1966 — and Tarr is renting a five-ton computer for $100 an hour to run his new dating service, ‘Operation Match’. For almost as long as computers have been around, people have been using them to find love. Now one in five relationships in the UK will start online. Across Europe, 49 million people visit dating sites every month.

But there is a risk: new research has found that 48% of users in the UK, France and Germany have been spammed or scammed on dating sites. Incidents ranged from blackmail, to ‘revenge porn’, to outright requests for cash.

Finding a partner was not always so complex. In his book Modern Romance, the comedian Aziz Ansari muses that he spends longer choosing where to eat dinner than his parents spent choosing their spouse; their arranged marriage meant they talked for 30 minutes before deciding to spend their lives together. After 35 years, they are still happily married.

Trusting families to find your partner was common practice until the 18th century, and is still perfectly normal in parts of the Middle East, Asia and Africa. In the 20th century, finding someone was left to chance: a high school sweetheart, an accidental encounter. In the 21st, people increasingly put their trust in complex algorithms developed by dating sites which match ‘core personality traits’. The service eHarmony predicts that by 2020, half of all new relationships will start online.

Love story

All hail the dating apps, say some. You do not have to limit your options to friends of friends any more — a clever formula can scan the single people in your area, and present you with the perfect match. As long as you are cautious of the risks, you are far more likely to find someone who complements you. And when you do, you are more likely to stay together; a study in 2013 found that spouses who met online enjoyed longer and happier marriages than those who did not.

But there is something missing, say others. When there are so many options, online daters become more picky and narrow-minded, searching for a perfect person who does not exist. And as Tarr knew in the 1960s, the mathematical approach lacks the most important element: the spark. The best relationships begin with a subtle, intangible human attraction. Swiping right will never be quite the same.

You Decide

  1. Is there still a stigma attached to online dating?
  2. Can someone who is your total opposite be more attractive than a 98% match online?


  1. There are thousands of dating apps available for people with specific ‘types’, such as dog owners or men with beards. Write a business proposal for your own dating app. Who is it for? What does it measure?
  2. Write the opening chapter of a romance novel about online dating.

Some People Say...

“Love is at once the simplest and most complex emotion on Earth.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t use online dating sites.
That’s not too surprising — studies show that it is not as popular with young people, who are more likely to make acquaintances through school or their friends. But you never know what might happen in a few years’ time, so it’s worth considering the risks and rewards now.
I do use online dating sites. Am I going to get scammed?
Not necessarily, but make sure you look out for the warning signs: be wary of clicking on links or suspicious profiles, and never reply to someone who asks you for money. If you do decide to meet a stranger in person then you should always go to a public place, and tell somebody your plans beforehand.
What if I don’t want to date anybody?
That is absolutely fine! There are plenty of other things to focus on and make you happy.

Word Watch

Five-ton computer
This was the IBM 1401, a huge machine which processed data stored on punch cards. In this case, the data comprised the users’ answers to a questionnaire.
One in five
From a 2011 YouGov survey.
49 million
According to online analytics company, Comscore. Over 45s were the most active.
From a study of more than 3,000 people in Europe by the security firm Symantec.
Revenge porn
This is the term given to the act of posting explicit photos of someone without their permission. The practice is illegal in the UK — so if someone has posted private photos of you online, you can report them to the police.
Arranged marriage
This is not the same as a forced marriage, where spouses are forced or manipulated into a marriage against their will. Instead, families will arrange meetings for their children, who can choose whether or not to marry the other person.
Swiping right
On Tinder, users swipe potential partners right if they are interested in talking more. Fans say it encourages a more instinctual match than the algorithm-based sites before it; critics say it is more shallow.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.