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Perspective | Tinder’s new safety tool asks daters to do the app’s work for them

And, yes, safety concerns are more pressing for women. According to a 2020 survey from the Pew Research Center, women ages 18 to 34 who have used online dating sites or apps are far more likely than men their age to say someone continued to contact them after they said they were not interested, called them an offensive name or threatened to physically harm them.

Now Tinder is giving daters one more thing they can add to their safety checklist: running a background check on a match. The popular dating app has partnered with Garbo, which will tell users whether their match has been arrested or convicted of a violent crime, or is on a sex offender registry in the United States. Arrests or convictions abroad will not come up.

Tinder is billing this move as an advance for users’ safety, and maybe it will help some daters avoid a potentially dangerous situation. But it’s also a change that says: Hey, daters — here’s more work for you to do, on top of what you’re already doing, to stay safe.

Tinder isn’t helping users interpret these background checks, and it could end up providing them a false sense of security. Let’s say a background check comes back without any arrests or convictions. Does this automatically mean it’s safe to meet up? Not really, it could just mean this person is dangerous and hasn’t been caught or convicted yet.

A background check could also create unwarranted alarm. If someone was arrested for a crime they didn’t commit, or they’ve served their time, should Tinder be telling their potential mate before they get to?

When I asked Tinder why it was adding this feature rather than being more vigilant to root out bad actors on its platform, Tracey Breeden, the head of safety and social advocacy at Match Group, Tinder’s parent company, cited privacy considerations and legal limits on how much information the company can gather about its users. “Experts recommended to us that it’s best to empower people with tools and information so they can make their own decisions,” Breeden says, adding that “background checks aren’t for everyone.”

Tinder says that Garbo is designed to show results “relevant to the user’s safety” and exclude drug possession, loitering and vagrancy. Each search on Garbo costs $2.50; Tinder is giving users two free searches.

Garbo admits its background checks have limits; the company doesn’t have access to all arrest records across the United States. “Background checks should be viewed as a tool in the safety tool belt — not a complete solution to safety,” Garbo says on its website. The company also acknowledges that most violent individuals never interact with the criminal justice system.

Over the past two years, Tinder has added machine-learning tools aimed at bolstering users’ safety. The app prompts senders to ask themselves “Are you sure?” before they send a potentially offensive message. Recipients might also receive a prompt asking “Does this bother you?” with the option to report someone if they feel unsafe.

Tinder says these tools have allowed the dating app to proactively catch offensive or harassing behavior. But it also relies on users to report bad behavior.

Nicole Bedera, a University of Michigan sociologist who studies colleges’ responses to sexual assault, finds Tinder’s move to add background checksmore symbolic than substantive. It’s a way for Tinder to skirt its responsibility when something unsavory happens after two people match, she says. Besides, Bedera doesn’t think many people will use the new feature. Many daters already have their own vetting process: Googling someone, or looking up their social media, before a date to ensure they are who they say they are.

“Dating is such a slog. It’s a lot of vetting to do to everyone,” she says of running prospective dates through a background check before meeting up.

Bedera also pointed out that there are big racial disparities in the criminal justice system, including in how sexual and intimate partner violence are treated, which could lead to reinforcing negative stereotypes of people of color and overestimating the safety of White men.

Tinder says it has been working on the partnership for more than a year — and that it’s not connected to the latest user to make headlines, “The Tinder Swindler.” The popular Netflix documentary details how Shimon Hayut, posing as a diamond heir, allegedly met women on the app and then defrauded several of them out of millions of dollars. Romance scams like the one Hayut is accused of perpetrating are common. Victims of romance fraud lost $1 billion in 2021, according to the FBI.

The documentary ends by noting that Hayut was still on Tinder. Shortly after the film debuted in February, the dating app banned him. Hayut’s 2019 arrest in Israel for defrauding women wouldn’t have shown up in Garbo background check since it occurred overseas.

Twenty minutes after my conversation with Bedera, I received an email from Hinge (another dating app owned by Match Group), notifying me that one of my matches had been removed from the dating app based on information regarding “potentially fraudulent behavior.”

I was relieved to receive this message. But I wondered how many people might have flagged him, or been hurt by his behavior, before he was removed.

The best response to the safety risks to swiping, Bedera says, would be a better pool of daters. But part of Tinder’s appeal is its low barrier to entry — all you need is a Google account or a phone number to sign up — and its millions of users all over the world. Tinder’s reputation as a catchall singles club, rather than an exclusive gathering place, is both its greatest asset and its biggest liability.

Engineering the right balance of safety and critical mass might be even tougher than finding the love of your life on Tinder.

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