Introduction to Social Media Investigation: A Hands-on Approach, 1st Edition (2015)
Chapter 20. Online dating
Online dating Web sites are a specific type of social media designed for people to find romantic partners and friends. The industry is extremely popular. There are roughly 54 million single Americans, and 41 million people have tried online dating. Ten percent of Americans—and ≈ 40% of single Americans—have used an online dating service. On dating sites, people create profiles for themselves. The personal information in these profiles is quite extensive. This chapter presents an overview of the different types of information people share on these sites and how to find those people.
Online dating websites are a specific type of social media designed for people to find romantic partners and friends. The industry is extremely popular. There are roughly 54 million single Americans, and 41 million people have tried online dating. Ten percent of Americans—and ≈ 40% of single Americans—have used an online dating service.
On dating sites, people create profiles for themselves. The personal information in these profiles is quite extensive. Sites have dozens of personal attributes and hundreds of questions that people use to describe themselves. These include basics like age, race, height, and favorites (books, movies, music, etc.), along with other personal information, like smoking and drinking habits, interest in having kids, dietary preferences and restrictions, and religion. Figure 20.1 shows basic profile information from the online dating site okcupid.com.
FIGURE 20.1 The basic profile information section of online dating website OkCupid.
Most sites also have options for users to answer questions that give additional insights into their personalities and preferences. OkCupid allows users to answer as many questions as they wish. Figure 20.2 shows one of these questions.
FIGURE 20.2 An example question from OkCupid.
Although this personal information can be useful for investigation, people aren’t always honest in their dating profiles. Over half of online daters believe that someone has seriously misrepresented themselves in their profile. Men most often lie about age, height, and income; women most often lie about weight, physical build, and age.
Major Online Dating Sites
There are dozens of dating sites. Some are intended for a wide audience. Others are dedicated to specific demographics (e.g., Christian Mingle, JDate, or Gay Friend Finder) or interests (e.g., Adult Friend Finder, a swinger-oriented site).
If you know your target has a particular interest, it is worth checking out related dating sites. However, for your average target, the major websites are most likely to yield results. Some of the most popular sites in the U.S. are as follows:
• Match.com: With 35 million unique monthly visitors, Match.com is one of the most popular dating sites. People can sign up for free, but generally pay a subscription in order to communicate with others.
• Zoosk: Targeted to younger users, with 70% of users under 35. There are an estimated 12 million unique monthly visitors to the site. It runs on desktop computers and mobile devices (including Android and iPhone devices).
• OkCupid: A very popular free dating site with around 11 million monthly users. This site has a special focus on quizzes used to match people. Figure 20.2 shows an example of one question in the quizzes.
• eHarmony: With roughly seven million unique monthly users, this paid site focuses on matching people through compatibility testing using an extensive questionnaire. The main site does not allow same-sex couples. They also refuse some people after they complete the long profile questionnaire.
• Tinder is a relative newcomer to the online dating scene, but it is increasingly popular. It’s a service accessed through an app on mobile devices. Users browse the photos and profiles of other people online near them (see Figure 20.3). They indicate people whose profiles they like. If that person likes back, they are able to text with one another.
FIGURE 20.3 A profile page from Tinder. This image is a promotion profile for the show The Mindy Project, but represents the average kind of information on a Tinder profile.
By Basic and Advanced Search
Most online dating sites have extensive search functionality. The most basic search functionality includes gender, age, and location of the target. Most sites also have advanced search functionality, which allows filtering results according to many personal attributes and interests.
Figure 20.4 shows the search page from OkCupid. A number of search options have already been entered, and the “Advanced” search options allow the user to choose attributes (like religion, education, drug use, pets, languages, or astrological signs, among many others) to filter the results.
FIGURE 20.4 An example search page from OkCupid, including a long list of advanced search options that a user can choose from to narrow the results.
By Effective Search Strategies
Remember that people often lie about themselves on online dating sites. Therefore, you may wish to search for a wider range of ages, body types, and income levels. In addition, some people leave parts of their profile blank; for example, many choose not to share their income level. If you search for a specific income level, users who haven’t specified one will usually not appear in your search results. Thus, keeping the search as broad as possible will yield more results to review, but may increase the chances of finding a target.
By Email or Username
You may also search for people by email address or username. Usernames from other social media accounts are good candidates to try here, though people often hide their real names in their online dating profiles—often specifically to keep interested people from finding them elsewhere online.
Tinder is an exception to this rule: it does not offer searching for individuals. Anyone within range of your current location may come up, and you can only communicate if you both have liked one another’s profiles.
FIGURE 20.5 A search option on OkCupid that allows search by username.
If you can find a target on an online dating website, you will usually find a wealth of personal information. All the attributes a person can search by, as shown in Figure 20.4, are listed on a user’s profile page. There are also often short personal essays on a profile page, along with photos. Figures 20.6 and 20.7 show samples of a condensed profile on Match.com and a full profile on OkCupid, respectively. Note the long lists of personal attributes.
FIGURE 20.6 A sample summary profile of a Match.com user.
FIGURE 20.7 Example user Malcom’s OkCupid profile.
What You Won’t Find
At the same time, for privacy and safety, dating sites try to keep users somewhat anonymous. Full names are never shown; rather, a username or a first name and last initial are usually shown instead. Addresses, contact information, and other personal data (which could allow someone to track down someone else) is also kept off these sites.
Another common feature on dating sites is to display when a user last visited the site. This can help you learn how often a user is checking in and how frequently they interact on the site.
Profile View Notifications
An important thing to keep in mind when using online dating sites to investigate a target is that, in most cases, people can see who viewed their profile. Nearly every site requires you to have an account and to be logged in to search for others. When you visit someone’s page, the site typically logs your visit, and shows that person a list of everyone who’s viewed their profile. Some sites, like OkCupid, have options to browse anonymously. However, in general, you should expect a visit to someone’s page to notify them with a link to your profile.
There are many cases where profile information from online dating sites has been useful to better understand a target, to locate them elsewhere online, or even catch them misbehaving.
Arrests and Investigations
There are many stories of people being arrested where information from their online dating profiles was used to discover more information about them or to confirm their identities.
In June 2014, Christian Radio Host John Baylo was arrested in Michigan on child pornography charges1. He allegedly met his victim through another man, Ronald Moser. Police used known screen names for Ronald Moser to find his account on a Russia-based photo hosting website that contained child pornographic images. They found that he used the same photo and email address from the Russian porn sites to create an OkCupid account. This linkage, though screen names, photos, and email addresses on a legitimate dating website that contains a lot of personal information to a pornographic website is not conclusive proof that the same person maintained both accounts, but it is strong evidence that would justify further investigation.
Journalists used a similar technique to track down online accounts of Steven Zelich, a former police officer accused of murdering two women2. He was reported to have met his victims online, and reporters for Wisconsin radio station WTMJ found three accounts for him on bondage-themed dating sites.
Michael David Miller
In another case, Michael David Miller of Colorado was arrested for sexually assaulting women he met online3. With the username mike22486, he maintained accounts on OkCupid, where he met some victims who came forward. Another woman came forward and accused him of sexual assault after they met through an ad on Craigslist.
A Google search for that username also turns up accounts on several adult-themed personal sites, including HotMatch.com, Fuckbook.com, along with more mainstream dating sites Plenty of Fish, and the dating section of the online marketplace Oodle. All of the profiles use pictures of the same person and list his location in (or around) Aurora, Colorado.
This consistency and frequency of profiles paints a picture of the target’s interests, and also serves as a starting point for further investigation into his communications and contacts.
Online dating websites generally have extensive profile information about people, including their personal attributes and self-descriptive text. Millions of single people, especially in the US, have tried online dating and have profiles on at least one sight. The most popular dating sites have millions of users, but there are dozens of other sites designed for users with narrower interests.
It is rare to be able to browse profiles on dating sites without being logged in. While many sites allow you to create a free profile to search and browse others’ profiles, viewing them is usually logged, and notifies the profile’s owner. Therefore, during investigations, you should be careful about how you use these sites, especially if you want to keep your searches private.