I moved back to New York from Cairo in January of 2014, and among the biggest culture shocks was American Tinder. In Cairo, there was the occasional woman, mostly Russian tourists on holiday, using the mobile dating app; in New York, I met a torrent of instant flirtation. Patterns emerged: apparently almost every woman under 30 in this city "Loves whiskey," is really into Hallmark-caliber affirmation quotes, and fake moustaches. Tinder seemed like a lot of work. So much swiping, so much chatting, only to be disappointed in the flesh.
It wasn't just bad chemistry. The app represents an enormous market (Tinder claims it matches over 10 million horny users a day) and a mammoth valuation (as high as $5 billion). With a mix of a huge crowd and lots of money, it would make sense for Tinder to attract a more industrious determined type of user: sex workers.
For escorts (and their backers), Tinder's anonymity and ease of use make it a natural fit. Of all the dating sites, a photo-based app like Tinder is most like a billboard: it advertises only your best features, with no screen-space for blemishes. Users who open the app for the first time are now often greeted—to their surprise and delight—by a series of familiar figures: lingerie-clad women posing in front of a mirror offering various favors. For the most part these consist of a BBBJ (Bare Back Blow Job, as in no condom) and GFE (Girlfriend Experience, as in she will treat you with artificial affection and give you the "experience" of making love as your girlfriend), with slight variations in the pitch. The point: it seemed like users could easily skip the chit-chat and just pay someone for sex without leaving their iPhone.
From Australia to Ontario there have been reports of women using the app for solicitation—all while Tinder says it's actively combating this type of user. According to Tinder's terms of service, it forbids commercial solicitation of any kind—including "advertising or soliciting any user to buy or sell any products or services not offered by the Company." Yet and still, escorts on Tinder appear to have become enough of an issue to prompt New Mexico State Senator Jacob Candelaria to blast the app specifically in his attempt to "clean up" dating sites. "Our laws can't and don't keep pace with technological advancement and there will always be people looking to exploit those loopholes," Candelaria told KOB Eyewitness News 4. "We're weak. Our courts have said our pimping laws are not applicable to the internet."
So, just how does it work? Is it risky? Are the women making more money because of it? Is there some cyber pimp wearing Geordi La Forge glasses running the show via smartphone? I attempted to find out.
It didn't take all that long to understand what was really going on. Far from being the wild west of the sex trade, with programmers teaming up with escorts to maximize profits, Tinder is suffering from a plague of spambots. It is quite possible that at some point recently there really were flesh and blood escorts using Tinder, but the new and ubiquitous ones flooding my stream seem nothing more than artificial profiles. The clues are obvious. After matching with one of the women/bots advertising their services I messaged them, "Hey! What's up?" But no reply. After about an hour, these profiles disappeared from my Match list. I tried this on and off over the course of 24 hours. Eventually, escorts stopped matching with me altogether, despite still showing up first whenever I opened Tinder. Perhaps the algorithm that generated these profiles was getting smarter.
At this point I was fairly sure these were spambots, but continued to track down escorts to make sure. After all, their pictures didn't look that different from real backpage ads you'd find in your local alt weekly. I headed online to the websites listed in the escorts' profiles: Tindate.com and GoGFE.com. Interestingly enough, these sites both led me to iHookUp.com. The site, which advertises itself as a dating page, notes that it was created by "a handful of forward-thinking women who realized that women like hooking up as much as men do." The page is convoluted, and not nearly as appealing as Tinder; it looks like one of those websites that flood your screen as pop-up ads on YouPorn. But why not, right? I wanted to get in touch and confirm my suspicions, so I made a profile.
Upon signing in, inputting some information—name, age, city of residence—and being encouraged to pay for a premium package, I finally came to the personal pages of the women I had seen on Tinder. Gone were the text ads for their services, and low and behold, they weren't anywhere near Brooklyn. The women were now listed in Miami, Seattle, and suburban Washington. Still, I tried sending them "flirts" and "favoriting them" with no results. These were definitely not real people.
But why the spambots? What is the motivation in luring horny dudes to a profile of a non-existent person with no monetary exchange, and not even the decency of a robot reply?
The answer lay in the incentives of not necessarily driving traffic to iHookUp.com, but in getting people to sign up as members, even without buying a "premium package." Research into iHookUp's Affiliate Program revealed partner/parent website LoadedCash.com, which runs various other hookup sites, such as BlackTryst.com and ones to help you cheat on your spouse. Through a traffic and lead generation agreement with LoadedCash.com, one can earn $6 per free member sign up if you can manage to get one out of every ten people that you direct to iHookUp from your fake escort website to create a profile. If you can get them to sign up for a premium membership you can tack an extra 21 cents onto that. Not too bad. Given the millions using Tinder, it seems as though one could make some decent money by gaming Tinder users. The domain owner of GoGFE.com, Sean O'Reilly of Portland, didn't respond to my calls or emails. I assume he's too busy spending his fake escort money on artisanal hedgehog food, or whatever people in Portland do.
Spambots are a continued problem for Tinder and have bogged down similar location-based hookup apps like Grindr in years prior. In the past, bots had attempted to get men in heat to play an online game called Castle Clash. Now they simply use the prospect of sex to get you to sign up for a hookup site, which actually seems more logical. Rosette Pambakian, Tinder's Director of Communications, told me via email that they "very recently rolled out a major technical solution to the spambot issue, which should result in measurably less spam and bots than prior." So even the days of these fake escorts seem numbered, if you take Tinder at its word.
What originally seemed like a new frontier for the sex trade turned out to be a fairly simple money making scheme by some enterprising programmers. And for titillated bros looking for real-life escorts with the ease of Tinder? Maybe start begging Berlin based app Peppr—which is filled with real, non-bot escorts—to set up shop in New York. Or at least somewhere closer than Portland.
Gabriel Luis Manga is a writer who recently moved back to New York after a long spell in Cairo, Egypt where he helped develop a reality TV show for Egyptian youth. Follow him on Twitter @Gabri_elManga.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]