Online dating in Britain is a massive phenomenon with one in three under 40 year olds now using dating sites and Apps to find a partner. However, many of the dating websites are riddled with fake profiles and the numbers of people being deceived online has soared.
Half of users say they have come across a false profile, according to figures quoted in the Government’s Internet Safety Strategy green paper. I am campaigning for a new law to make it illegal to create a false identify online and pretend to be someone else to form a romantic relationships – known as ‘catfishing’. Dating websites and social media companies should also be doing more to protect people from ‘catfish’.
One way to force companies to clean up their act would be to introduce a new name and shame league table of dating websites to expose those stuffed with fake profiles.
A star-rated league table of how safe websites are and how likely you are to be duped would expose in bright lights those who are not doing enough to protect their users. The public should not have to continuously contend with the prospect that the person they are in communication with is not who they say they are.
I first become interested in catfishing after being approached by a constituent Matthew Peacock, a Stockport male model, who had his identity stolen online for four years by a catfish who used his pictures on dating websites to lure women.
A star-rated league table of how safe websites are and how likely you are to be duped would expose in bright lights those who are not doing enough to protect their users
Mr Peacock’s family has been put under tremendous strain and his wife has been contacted on many occasions to be wrongly told that her husband was cheating on her, asking women for illicit photographs, videos and arranging meetings.
Photographs of Mr Peacock’s nephews and nieces have also been used by the catfish who claimed they were his children in an attempt to attract single mothers by appearing as a ‘caring dad’.
After publicising Mr Peacock’s case in the Commons I was approached by several other victims of catfishing who had all been traumatised by the experience.
They all told me that they wanted websites to do more to protect people by responding more quickly to complaints and introducing better ID verification procedures. They also wanted catfishing to be made illegal to deter the persistent catfish who keeps reinventing him or herself in a different guise.
Based on conversations with these victims, I have compiled a detailed submission to the Government’s consultation on the Internet Safety Strategy which says that dating and social media websites should be forced to introduce more robust ways of checking the identity of people using their sites. This should include scanning passports, driving licences and using photo recognition software to protect people from being deceived.
The voluntary code of practice proposed by the government does not go far enough and there needs to be a statutory Digital Mediation/Monitoring Complaints Board, which could enforce proper standards and take action. It would be this new monitoring board that would produce the league table of websites.
I have also suggested that websites who do not use verification processes or who allow anonymity should not be allowed to upload photographs because that makes it easier for catfish to create a false profile.
Internet companies are also very coy about how much they spend on keeping users safe. This should be more transparent. Experts tell me that the amount of money spent by the big internet companies on using developing technology to dispute abusive relationships online is ‘minimal’ compared to the money they spend in other areas. The figures are shrouded in secrecy and are not in the public domain.
The House of Commons library has confirmed that information on spending in this area is scarce. The BBC ran a news item on dating website safety earlier this year, which said that safety features of such sites were often not divulged to ‘maintain competitive advantage.’
I would urge the big internet companies to be more transparent about what proportion of their budget they spend on protecting users and developing techniques to verify the ID and age of website users.
Websites have to take more responsibility and put their money where their mouth is and develop more robust ways of checking the identity of people who use their sites.
In addition, making catfishing illegal would be a massive deterrent. If people knew pretending to be someone else was an offence then they would be put off.
Ann Coffey is the Labour MP for Stockport