The FTC and Fake Tinder Profiles
Written by Cid Decatur, Research Assistant in Cornell’s Social Media Lab and Communication Major
You’d be surprised to know how easy it is to create a fake Tinder account. Anyone can do it. It’s easier than you’d think even though it is against the company’s policy. Their platform is poor at detecting fake accounts, as evident from $143 million of Tinder users’ money was lost last year to fake profile scams on the platform (Al-Rousan et al., 2020). If you ever use the platform, it’s all but certain you will come across bots, catfish profiles, scams, or even escort solicitation. While fake profiles are, admittedly, rather easily identified by the average user, flagged, and subsequently removed for a violation of the platform’s policies, how do so many get there in the first place? The answer lies in how effective Tinder is in the creation of a safe and controlled romance environment. According to Manta in the Wake Forest Law Review (2019), the modern online dating scene has become the Wild West of “sexual fraud.”
When visiting Tinder’s platform policy and guidelines page, it becomes particularly apparent that there are holes in both the platform safety software and the description of the software itself. Tinder takes responsibility for their community’s safety when they write, “We understand that it’s our responsibility to play a role in defining the standards for the entire industry… Our team is actively working with several States to promote legislation to help combat catfishing. For more information, please visit here.” At the time this post was written, this is what you’d get when you click on the redirect link:
A small blip in their website coding isn’t enough to declare Tinder dating-app-outlaws and to have the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) run them out of town. At a bare minimum, It should be noted that a company with a market value of $42 billion and a prioritization of community guideline policies shouldn’t have this mistake in the first place.
Where the evidence is stacked against Tinder comes in the form of FTC user complaints. Tinder’s official stance is that they work against fake profiles and platform misuse, a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the FTC in 2017 gave way to a release of spreadsheets full of user complaints backed by consumer protection laws. The FOIA states that upon request, the FTC will release user complaints that are based on consumer protection policies. Essentially, this is an effective metric to tell how many legal cases users have against a company. User complaints are centered around spam accounts, catfishing, solicitation, and other illegal activities which Tinder claims to protect its user base against. To reveal such complaints, Allan Dellinger of the Newsweek Media Group requested information on numerous dating-app platforms, among them, Tinder.
One such complaint published by the FTC reads:
“Earlier tonight I had discovered that someone was using my name and face on a ‘Tinder’ account. I had contacted the privacy department of Tinder but they were unable to do anything claiming it was Facebook’s responsibility. I have never created a Tinder account and trying to contact Facebook was nearly impossible. I am still a minor and I believe this app is only allowed for people above 18, not to mention that it is being controlled by someone with it a ten mile radius of the person (a co-worker of mine) who discovered this account, so they most likely live within a ten mile radius of me as well…” (Online dating, 2018).
Nearly all of the complaints in the FTC record at least feature a mention of fake profiles, with many others discussing adult images spam, solicitation, or other malicious crimes users have fallen prey to.
It’s worth noting that these complaints listed are only those in which the user felt comfortable reporting as non-private, and the last freedom of information request came from a journalism company in 2017. Since then, Tinder has gone on to run a campaign to protect users from fake profiles and scams by introducing their identity verification system. This system has one major flaw; it’s entirely voluntary. Those who don’t want to participate do not have to unless they live in Japan, where geo-filtering changes due to local law, and users are forced to upload passport documentation. As a research assistant for the Youth Tech Safety study in the Cornell Social Media Lab, I completed a digital ethnography of the Tinder registration process. My goal was to test how easy it was to create a Tinder account as an underage user. I set my age to be 18 the day of registration, used a stock photo with watermarks present on it, and didn’t upload any other personal information. The app let me in without any questions asked. Here’s “my” profile:
And yes, while I was unable to verify my likeness as a stock photo high school student, I had no issues accessing the platform. This brings into question the other risks of having easy access to fake accounts on dating apps as a whole. While Tinder asks for the user’s date of birth, there’s nothing stopping users from entering the wrong date, unless they’re in Japan, where they are legally required to input their personal information with a passport scan. Tinder clearly has the capability to implement powerful verification features but does not prioritize mandating them. This indicates that policy could be a powerful tool in keeping users in the digital dating space safe. If the FTC takes after Japan and encourages geo filtering in the United States, user safety could be drastically improved.
To combat recurring policy failures, the next step will be to go request more information from the FTC. The most useful data missing from this picture is how complaints have changed since Tinder implemented its verification software. To make another FOIA request, click here.
Al-Rousan, S., Abuhussein, A., Alsubaei, F., Kahveci, O., Farra, H., & Shiva, S. (2020). Social-guard: detecting scammers in online dating. 2020 IEEE International Conference on Electro Information Technology (EIT), 416–422. https://doi.org/10.1109/EIT48999.2020.9208268
Manta, I. D. (2019). Tinder lies. Wake Forest Law Review, 54(1), 207–250.
Online dating. (2018, February 1). Federal Trade Commission. https://www.ftc.gov/about-ftc/foia/frequently-requested-records/online-dating