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Catfished by Code: The New Wave of AI Dating App Scams

“I got fake people showing fake love to me… I can tell that love is fake…”

Fake Love by Drake

The struggle to find love in the age of online dating is hard. Determining if that love is real just got harder.

The next generation of “Tinder Swindlers” are upping their game with AI. With the rise of online dating apps, scammers are primed to increase their efforts to steal private information and exploit users for money. They are using AI chatbots such as ChatGPT to accomplish this.

Over half of all young adults report ever using a dating app such as Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, and legacy services such as OKCupid and eHarmony. Roughly 20,000 Americans are victims of catfishing each year. Of the 13% of U.S. adults who have been catfished, 68% of those incidents occurred on dating apps.

Online scammers trick hopeful romantics with fake photos, military romance scams, code verification scams, sugar daddy scams, inheritance scams, and blackmail. These catfish pretend to be interested in users before asking for personal information, financial assistance, or by offering financial advice.

Now with easy access to large language models, scammers are able to easily craft unique messages to their potential victims of fake love. LoveGPT is a program users download in order to bypass CAPTCHA and scrape user data. It uses OpenAI’s API to create fake profiles based on that data to directly target real users of thirteen dating sites. The integration of AI allows for faster targeting of users with less human intervention allowing them to deploy nefarious scamming tactics. The combination of age-old scams with the power of AI is proving to affect more real users, in addition to raising challenging legal issues for dating app companies.

Legal Implications

47 U.S.C. Section 230 is likely the best defense dating app companies can use to avoid liability for the actions of their users. This provision offers immunity to these dating app companies for third-party user-generated content posted to their website or app, which messages between users clearly fall within.

Even if these companies moderate the discussions of their users, Section 230 will still apply. Section 230 will not apply in a federal criminal prosecution if one is launched against these companies. However, Herrick v. Grindr shows that dating apps are protected under Section 230 for allegedly defective design that allows their users to be harassed.

Dating app companies may also seek protection and redress via their terms of service (TOS). Many companies use language in their TOS to warn users about their duty to protect themselves, such as in Bumble’s TOS: “We don’t control any of the things our users say or do, so you are solely responsible for your interactions with other users of the App.” These companies may also have a cause of action against the users employing AI, as many TOS expressly prohibit the use of web scraping robots. Dating app users relying on LoveGPT make multiple misrepresentations during contract formation as the program involves fake phone numbers, fake email addresses, and entirely fabricated accounts.

As with offline contracts, users must manifest an intent to be bound to the contract terms by overt acts or words. In the online world, this often takes the form of click-wrap or sign-in/sign-up wrap, whereby users must click a button that manifests their assent.

“Tinder Sign-Up Page on Nov. 14, 2023” Image: Tinder

However, not all online contract formation processes are equally effective. The image above is taken from Tinder’s sign-up page. The call-to-action is sufficiently visible even though it is the smallest text on the page. The wording is clearly conditional, and the TOS is properly signaled with a hyperlink. However, the conditional wording only applies to users who tap “SIGN IN.” Therefore, users who tap “CREATE ACCOUNT” are not assenting to the TOS, privacy policy, or the cookies policy. Nowhere in the subsequent account creation pages are users prompted to agree to Tinder’s TOS.

This is a major leak whereby users creating accounts are not bound to Tinder’s TOS. This makes it difficult for Tinder to enforce its TOS against users who use LoveGPT to scam legitimate users.

Business implications

Since 2017, instances of reported losses due to scams have skyrocketed, amassing a staggering $1.3 billion, making it the most prevalent form of fraud tracked by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). These alarming trends have persisted through 2021, as a record-breaking $547 million was lost to romance scams alone, marking an 80% surge from the previous year. This surge equates to a median personal loss of $2,400. The trajectory is ominous, with losses continuing to escalate.

According to a comprehensive report from the FTC, the online dating market is poised for substantial growth, projecting a monumental increase to $1.35 billion in revenue by 2023 and an anticipated market volume reaching $1.47 billion by 2027. Concurrently, user engagement is expected to surge, with a forecasted 64.5 million users by 2027. The market penetration rate among users is anticipated to rise from 17.6% in 2023 to 18.8% in 2027. The average revenue per consumer is estimated to be $22.77, underscoring the lucrative potential that continues to drive the expansion of dating app services.

Amidst this financial boom, the landscape is marred by the persistent threat of AI-driven scams within dating apps. While the provided data offers a glimpse into the concerning trends, it is essential to recognize that it may not unveil the entirety of the challenges. This surge is in part attributed to the younger generation's widespread access to smartphones, adeptness with social media, and the catalyzing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. These factors create a perfect storm, accelerating the proliferation of online dating platforms and the scams that plague them.

In the face of these challenges, it remains evident that dating app services will persist in their efforts to expand and fortify their market presence, driven by the lucrative prospects they confront. As technology evolves and societal dynamics shift, vigilance, and awareness become paramount in navigating the complex landscape of online dating for both users and companies.

*The views expressed in this article do not represent the views of Santa Clara University.


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