A little over a month ago, Ernie* (not his real name) decided to take a plunge into the dating world again. Nearly five months had passed since the brown-eyed twenty-something and his girlfriend of three years had split up, and he was feeling the curiosity rebuilding in his love life again.

Ernie opted for a more casual and less intimidating approach than going to bars: an online dating community. One night after work, he downloaded the Plenty of Fish (POF) phone app and carefully filled in his dating profile. In the short amount of time it took him to create, he had already begun to see the potential in online dating, where romantically charged conversations and sexually persuasive motives abound.  

“For my POF profile, I uploaded my freshest selfie and I said that I play guitar and I have a few cats,” says Ernie. “You have to be catchy so the women who are scrolling through POF will be like, ‘Hey, this guy actually does stuff.’” He felt like his profile was strong enough to persuade other singles, so it was no surprise when he ended up with a few interested ladies that he conversed with briefly through the app’s messaging service.

There was one such woman though, “Lola” (or so she let on), who instantly grabbed Ernie by the virtual hand and lured him out of the Plenty of Fish app, straight into her text messaging inbox. Their texts quickly turned into sexts, as “Lola” grew increasingly generous with sending naked photos to Ernie.

“I was blown away that a girl messaged me nudes so fast,” Ernie explains. “But some of her nudes were inconsistent with her Plenty of Fish profile pic.”  

To Ernie, it almost sounded too good to be true. Most everyone knows about catfishing, where the person on the other end isn’t who advertises themselves to be. Unfortunately for Ernie, he learned the hard way about the embarrassing caveat. From here, he quickly became a victim of blackmail.

Online dating is an alluring and efficient digital medium where pushing the boundaries thrives on the cloak of anonymity. Anyone can be who they want and say what they want because the exit strategy is flawless, simply close the app.

But what happens when the safety net of anonymity is ripped away and you find yourself not so anonymous anymore and fearful of the permanence of the Internet? Diving deeper into the interview with Ernie, it became clearer his experience began innocent enough, merely accepting naked photos from someone “18 years old.”  Yet as the two got further into it, “Lola” released a bombshell to Ernie, and the entire mission was forced to be aborted.  

“Your pics made me cum…I have to tell you somethin…I’m 17. But I’m literally going to be 18. My bday is in January. Let’s celebrate…,” she said through text.

“I didn’t exactly tell her not to send any more pics,” Ernie admits. “I just stopped responding and kind of silently relented because she is underage.”

Sexting among teens has continued to follow a positive statistical trend. DoSomething.org reports that 24 percent of high school teens (ages 14 to 17) and 33 percent of college students (ages 18 to 24) have been involved in a form of nude sexting at least once. Furthermore, 15 percent of teens who have sent or posted nude/semi-nude images of themselves send these messages to people they have never met, but know from the Internet.

One Denver lawyer explains the alleged underage individual has an unfair angle by withholding pertinent age information, and once the individual does provide their true age, the other party may not understand the implications from that point on.

“That is the downfall of technology,” says the attorney. “Technology doesn’t always have a gatekeeper.”

Everything in this particular area of dating is following the same positive trend. Dating platforms are increasingly growing in membership size, and sexting among teens continues to increase in popularity. Plenty of Fish made its debut to the online dating scene in 2003, and since has garnered nearly 90 million users in ten different countries. In an article published by consumer data researchers at Best Company, the provided statistics illustrate the magnitude of reach Plenty of Fish has attained, and to say that POF only slightly surpasses other top dating sites is a severe understatement.

Adding together the total memberships of Match.com (21.5 million), eHarmony (15.5 million) and Zoosk (25 million), the sum of those numbers still doesn’t reach the heights of Plenty of Fish. And where there’s lonely singles, there are those out there willing to exploit them for cash.

Following her admittance to being under 18, the conversation between Ernie and “Lola” fizzled out, eventually becoming radio-silence.

Ernie thought he had dodged a bullet, that he would never hear from her again if he just ghosted. That proved to be only partially true, as the steamy sexting session quickly devolved into the sinister.

After a few days, he began to receive several suspicious phone calls and voicemails from a person claiming to be a private investigator — and an irate father. The “father” argued that Ernie had been sharing inappropriate photos with his underage daughter, “Lola.” Furthermore, the father figure was demanding that Ernie pay him the cost to cover the private investigator he hired in order to find out the details of his daughter’s “secret” life.

“I was terrified when I listened to the voicemails,” says Ernie. “I had this private investigator on my voicemail telling me that I am facing 33 years in prison for engaging in sexual texts with an underage girl and I’m over here at work trying to serve customers drinks in pineapples while my life is falling apart!”

CBS News reports the most common scamming indicator to look for with online dating websites is con artists who want to quickly move their potential victims off the dating website. Dating websites have the ability to monitor and boot members who exhibit problematic behavior or are perpetrating scams. This forces con artists to shift their victims elsewhere with claims of their membership ending or other reasons of why they can’t remain on the website.

“I totally freaked out and called one of my family members and was like, ‘Holy shit! Someone is trying to file criminal charges against me and extort me for hundreds of dollars for sexting with their daughter!’” Ernie exclaims.

Scams related to money and romance are infamous in the dating demographic. Consumer Reports released data that shows romantic scam information represents just the tip of the iceberg. And according to the FBI, romance and money scams cost consumers more money than any other kind of Internet fraud. In 2015, the most recent year with data available, people collectively lost more than $200 million through these scamming avenues.  

Ernie says the alleged private investigator and irate father were very adamant: pay the father $900 to reimburse him for what he paid for the private investigator, or he would not retract the criminal complaint that he made with the police department where he and his daughter live, in South Carolina.

Though the Denver attorney sees right through that kind of behavior. “You cannot withdraw a criminal complaint,” they say. “A criminal complaint has to be done in a court or at a higher level of authority, and not from the person who submitted originally, especially with matters pertaining to individuals under age 18.”

After hearing from his own lawyer that he was likely being scammed, Ernie opted to just ignore the shady trio and hold onto his $900. Lesson learned.

“I am not going back on a dating site for a while,” says Ernie. *closes app*                                             

[originally published on December 05, 2017]