Instead of seeking companionship on dating apps geared to the LBGTQ+ community, scammers are exorting others for cash or compromising photos. The fraud, called sextortion, has led the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to issue a warning after complaints from users of sites such as Grindr, Feeld and other dating apps.
These “aren’t your typical I-love-you-please-send-money romance scams,” Ari Lazarus, an FTC consumer education specialist, wrote in a blog post. "They're extortion."
Typically, the offender poses as a potential partner on an LGBTQ+ dating app, sends their own explicit photos and asks for some in return. The scammer then threatens to share the images and conversation with the victim’s friends, family or employer unless the target sends money, usually via a gift card.
Lazarus, in an interview, could not say how many complaints the FTC had received. He said Grindr and Feeld were singled out because they were named in complaints filed by victims but that some complaints did not specify a platform.
Join today and save 43% off the standard annual rate. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.
'Safe space' was not
Most alarming, he says, was that people who were not fully “out” about their sexual orientation were being exploited on an LGBTQ+ app, which they thought was a “safe space.”
The FTC generally does not divulge the specifics of complaints it receives, but court cases reveal cruel and devastating betrayal in sextortion.
In May 2021, a 25-year-old Washington state man was sentenced to more than 12 years in prison after targeting at least 15 men on gay dating sites. He exchanged images, demanded explicit videos from them and threatened to send their intimate photos to their acquaintances if they didn’t comply, the Kitsap Sun reported. Some of his distraught victims contemplated suicide.
Then there’s the Wisconsin man, now 23, who pleaded no contest after harassing an older man on Grindr, the Telegraph Herald reported.
The victim was married for 30 years and feared his wife would divorce him if she learned what he was doing, but he refused to be blackmailed, court records show. His wife, son and daughter received Facebook messages with screenshots of the victim’s Grindr profile. “Did you know your husband is cheating on you with men?” the wife was asked.
Nearly six months later the victim was “visibly upset and his eyes welled up with tears” when talking about the impact on his wife and marriage, court records show.
Many cases go unreported
Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General Annie Jay, who prosecuted the case there, said in an interview that sextortion is a vastly underreported crime because perpetrators target victims they think have an incentive to keep silent. “The reason why it’s effective as a blackmail scheme is the perpetrators rely on and choose victims who are less likely to report,” she says. “There is an embarrassment angle inherent in the scheme.
“Who they’re picking is not just random luck of the draw,” she adds. “It’s not like stealing someone’s purse on the subway. It’s incredibly, specifically targeted.”
Greater use of dating sites, apps
Gays, lesbians and transgender people frequent dating sites and apps more than adults in general, the Pew Research Center says.
It found that 55 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual adults had used dating apps or websites, nearly twice the number (28 percent) of straight adults. Setting aside sexual orientation, 30 percent of Americans overall had gone online for dates, a figure that fell to 19 percent for those ages 50 to 64, Pew said.
Ari Ezra Waldman, a professor of law and computer science at Northeastern University, spent three years studying dating platforms for gay men and interviewed hundreds of users. Waldman, who is gay, says he did so because it’s important to protect the gay community not only from haters on the outside but from predators within. The FTC’s warning was “overdue,” he adds.
Hostile local communities are among the reasons gays turn to dating on cyberspace, he says.
Waldman says LGBTQ+ adults have the freedom to send graphic selfies and counsels against victim blaming. Still, he suggests users share graphic images only after they can trust the person they are communicating with — and only on platforms that take steps to protect privacy. Waldman faults some but not all LGBTQ+ dating sites for selling users’ data, including their HIV status, for a profit.
Grindr silent on number of complaints
Grindr, headquartered in West Hollywood, California, would not say how many sextortion complaints it had received. Instead, it issued a statement: “We are disturbed and disappointed to hear of scams targeting elders, queer people, or anyone. Grindr is committed to maintaining an open platform for the LGBTQ+ community … and we continually take steps to facilitate a safe experience.”
Grindr lists “prohibited” conduct in its 41-page terms of service: stalking, harassing, abusing, defaming, threatening or defrauding others. It says, though, that it does not conduct criminal or background screenings of users nor verify identities.
Sextortion reported to AARP
AARP’s Fraud Watch Network helpline, 877-908-3360, has heard from victims of sextortion that arose on dating apps including those for LGBTQ+ adults. “All have an inherent risk of criminals lurking behind fake profiles to steal,” says Amy Nofziger, who oversees the helpline and urges daters not to share intimate photos with people they don’t know. “It might seem like harmless, provocative fun, but there are criminals out there targeting people looking for lust and love."
Before sharing, Nofziger recommends considering how you would feel if what you sent appeared on Page 1 of your newspaper. “If you hesitate, don’t send it,” she says.
Tips from the FTC:
- Check out to whom you’re talking. Do a reverse-image search of the person’s photo. (You can use a site such as images.google.com.) If the photo is associated with another name or details don’t match up, that’s a sign of a scam.
- Don’t share personal information such as your cell number, email or social-media profile with someone you just met on an app.
- Don’t pay scammers to destroy photos or conversations; there’s no guarantee they will. The FBI does not condone paying online extortion demands.
- Remember, once you share photos, you can’t take them back.
Katherine Skiba covers scams and fraud for AARP. Previously she was a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She was a recipient of Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship and is the author of the book, Sister in the Band of Brothers: Embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq.