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Shraddha Walker’s murder case: Women ditch dating, matrimonial apps; experts blame platforms

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The horrid case has become the latest reason for women to abstain from dating/matrimonial applications, from the existing–financial frauds and sextortion.

When dating apps were first introduced in India-starting with Tinder in 2012-they vouched for users’ safety. But people today are treading these romance applications carefully.

In India, every month thousands of scams are reported on these platforms in which the biggest victims are women and people from the LGBTQ community, Ritesh Bhatia, a Cyber Crime investigator said. According to Bhatia, cases of sextortion are prevalent in tier-3 cities while romance scams and financial frauds on dating/matrimonial apps are pervasive in tier-1 and tier-2 cities.

Many women on Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge spoke to Livemint about their experiences of scams, assaults, and blackmail.

WHY WOMEN ARE THE BIGGEST VICTIMS?

According to Dr Prerna Kohli, Clinical Psychologist & Founder MindTribe.in, someone being more susceptible to fraud is not necessarily because of gender or a set of personality traits but being in a vulnerable position. Dr Kohli said in a situation like romantic breakups, sexual dry spells, and loneliness, people usually fall in the trap of scammers.

CyberPeace Foundation said that women from tier 2 and 3 cities are most vulnerable on such platforms because they are often enticed on a fake pretext of a better life or employment opportunities and, are subsequently lured into crimes like cyber-enabled human trafficking.

How an online dating scam usually begins? What techniques do perpetrators use?

Nirali Bhatia, Cyber Psychologist, and Psychotherapist shared some of the traits of a fraudster on social media apps and dating/matrimonial platforms. There are two kinds of perpetrators one is running a scam, which is throwing bait to anyone and everyone. Another is a “targeted” scammer, whose target is a gullible woman.

While the former’s motive is to make money out of the victim. The second category of scammers targets women, either to take “revenge”, or they enjoy the sadistic pleasure of victimizing in different ways, like harassment, and physical and emotional abuse. Such perpetrators are sociopaths or narcissists.

They initially talk around the bio, mentioned on the victim’s profile. A clever perpetrator reads all the digital footprints of its target. And pretends to be an “ideal partner”. They have a dominant personality then they are looking for a submissive personality.

The scammer may send a small gift or flowers to the victim. In return, the victim may comply with a request to send a small amount of money.

HOW LONG DO THE VICTIMS REMAIN TORMENTED?

The victims are gaslighted for months due to sudden ghosting by the perpetrators after achieving their purpose. Nirali said that women become paranoid and withdraw themselves from all kinds of activities. “It is a cyclical process which starts with anger, then the victim feels helpless, and then betrayal,” Nirali said.

According to her, sharing the grief and pain with close ones about the scam helps the victim to recover faster. “The ones who do not have the opportunity to confide in someone they can trust, such victims suffer for a very long time,” the psychotherapist added. Additionally, Dr Kohli said that “accepting the emotions” and “self-care” are the other two ways to heal from the trauma.

“These are some ways that can help you feel better and take care of yourself such as leaning on your support system of caring family and friends, taking time for self-care activities, and not getting caught in negative or distorted thought patterns associated with the fraud/scam,” Dr Kohli, Clinical Psychologist said.

She also advised, “If you can’t get your thoughts or emotions under control, find a counselor to talk to”.

Livemint reached out to some dating and matrimonial platforms to find out what actions they take in case of such incidents.

WHAT DATING/MATRIMONIAL PLATFORMS SAY?

Dating platforms didn’t give birth to online love. People started chasing their ‘Bollywood’ love stories ever since they could instantly message each other on the internet. But these dating/matrimonial platforms claimed that they have elaborately laid out security features for users.

Shalini Singh, founder of andwement, a matchmaking service for single urban Indians said they included safety features like “verifying user profiles and offering subscribers the option to report suspicious activity”. Shalini also said they educate “subscribers to be careful and sensible while meeting someone from andwemet”.

Anuradha Gupta, Founder & CEO, of Vows for Eternity, a premium global matchmaking service said they have a multi-step verification process. “We do multiple conversations at different stages within the membership which is a strong technique in keeping data accurate. Every member has to submit identity data when they come on board and we conduct face-to-face meetings virtually or in person with every member that signs up,” Gupta stated.

Tinder claimed that it “works closely with law enforcement”.

Bumble is yet to respond.

WHO SHOULD BE RESPONSIBLE FOR THESE SCAMS?

Livemint spoke to several cybersecurity experts and mostly said that the platforms should hold responsible for the scams.

Maheswaran Shamugasundaram, Country Manager- South Asia, Varonis said, “It should be a collective effort wherein the company should have preliminary screening and checks in place to avoid any scams”.

However, users should be educated on things to keep in mind while dating online, he added.

Harshil Doshi, Country Director- India, Securonix also stated that the primary responsibility of the scam lies with the platform. Doshi said that the platforms are more concerned about “customer acquisition/growth than user safety”. Hence, consumer awareness programs are not the priority. There is a need to bring in stringent regulation for dating/matrimonial platforms as we are directly dealing with the well-being of an individual”.

Ritesh Bhatia said the intermediaries should be responsible for these scams. He said if the apps have access to the phone’s gallery and SMS of users, then they must also be aware of genuine and fake users.

“Intermediaries know but they don’t want to do anything because they will lose users. If they are not doing it then the government should take action against them. The government is not putting intermediaries against the wall,” Bhatia stated.

Nirali Bhatia also shared a similar view about the dating/matrimonial platforms, but she also said that the users must also apply their common sense. “Technically, everything is possible, the problems are with the intent of the company. If the platform’s algorithm is matching users’ likes and dislikes and throws them relevant profiles. The same way the algorithm can match if someone is flagging off something, then these apps must map it,” Nirali added.

Further, she pointed out that government also needs to make stringent rules regarding these scams and sextortion. “Government should make policies where these apps must be held responsible in case of any mishap with a user,” Nirali averred.

CyberPeace Foundation laid out some of the measures taken by the government such as helpline numbers, deployment of cyber police stations and cells in districts, and the zero FIR rule. It said that since dating/matrimonial platforms are the mediums of cybercrimes, “These platforms have the duty to be compliant with the laws of the land and hence to keep the Indian netizen safe, Dating/matrimonial platforms need to efficiently fulfill their digital duties and responsibilities,” it added.

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