4.12.19

Tinder Welcomes Known Sex Offenders, and It's Not Alone

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Susan Deveau saw Mark Papamechail’s online dating profile on PlentyofFish in late 2016. Scrolling through his pictures, she saw a 54-year-old man, balding and broad, dressed in a T-shirt. Papamechail lived near her home in a suburb of Boston and, like Deveau, was divorced. His dating app profile said he wanted “to find someone to marry.”

Deveau had used dating websites for years, but she told her adult daughter the men she met were “dorky.” She joked about how she could get “catfished” if a date looked nothing like his picture. Still Deveau, 53, wanted to grow old with someone. The two were — in the popular dating platform’s jargon — “matched.”

A background check would have revealed that Papamechail was a three-time convicted rapist. It would have shown that Massachusetts designated him a dangerous registered sex offender. So how did PlentyofFish allow such a man to use its service?


PlentyofFish “does not conduct criminal background or identity verification checks on its users or otherwise inquire into the background of its users,” the dating app states in its terms of use. It puts responsibility for policing its users on users themselves. Customers who sign its service agreement promise they haven’t commited “a felony or indictable offense (or crime of similar severity), a sex crime, or any crime involving violence,” and aren’t “required to register as a sex offender with any state, federal or local sex offender registry.” PlentyofFish doesn’t attempt to verify whether its users tell the truth, according to the company.

Papamechail didn’t scare Deveau at first. They chatted online and eventually arranged a date. They went on a second date and a third. But months after their PlentyofFish match, Deveau became the second woman to report to police that Papamechail raped her after they had met through a dating app.

PlentyofFish is among 45 online dating brands now owned by Match Group, the Dallas-based corporation that has revenues of $1.7 billion and that dominates the industry in the U.S. Its top dating app, Tinder, has 5.2 million subscribers, surpassing such popular rivals as Bumble.

For nearly a decade, its flagship website, Match, has issued statements and signed agreements promising to protect users from sexual predators. The site has a policy of screening customers against government sex offender registries. But over this same period, as Match evolved into the publicly traded Match Group and bought its competitors, the company hasn’t extended this practice across its platforms — including PlentyofFish, its second most popular dating app. The lack of a uniform policy allows convicted and accused perpetrators to access Match Group apps and leaves users vulnerable to sexual assault, a 16-month investigation by Columbia Journalism Investigations found.

Match first agreed to screen for registered sex offenders in 2011 after Carole Markin made it her mission to improve its safety practices. The site had connected her with a six-time convicted rapist who, she told police, had raped her on their second date. Markin sued the company to push for regular registry checks. The Harvard-educated entertainment executive held a high-profile press conference to unveil her lawsuit. Within months, Match’s lawyers told the judge that “a screening process has been initiated,” records show. After the settlement, the company’s attorneys declared the site was “checking subscribers against state and national sex offender registries.”

The next year, Match made similar assurances to then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris. In a 2012 agreement on best industry practices between the attorney general’s office and the dating site, among others, the company again agreed to “identify sexual predators” and examine sex offender registries. It pledged to go further and respond to users’ rape complaints with an additional safety tool: “a rapid abuse reporting system.”

Today, Match Group checks the information of its paid subscribers on Match against state sex offender lists. But it doesn’t take that step on Tinder, OkCupid or PlentyofFish — or any of its free platforms. A Match Group spokesperson told CJI the company cannot implement a uniform screening protocol because it doesn’t collect enough information from its free users — and some paid subscribers — even when they pay for premium features. Acknowledging the limitations, the spokesperson said, “There are definitely registered sex offenders on our free products.”

CJI analyzed more than 150 incidents of sexual assault involving dating apps, culled from a decade of news reports, civil lawsuits and criminal records. Most incidents occurred in the past five years and during the app users’ first in-person meeting, in parking lots, apartments and dorm rooms. Most victims, almost all women, met their male attackers through Tinder, OkCupid, PlentyofFish or Match. Match Group owns them all.

In 10% of the incidents, dating platforms matched their users with someone who had been accused or convicted of sexual assault at least once, the analysis found. Only a fraction of these cases involved a registered sex offender. Yet the analysis suggests that Match’s screening policy has helped to prevent the problem: Almost all of these cases implicated Match Group’s free apps; the only service that scours sex offender registries, Match, had none.

In 2017, Tinder matched Massachusetts registered sex offender Michael Durgin with a woman, and she later told police he had raped her on their first date; Durgin’s two rape charges were dropped after the woman “indicated that she does not wish for the Commonwealth to proceed to trial,” records show. (Durgin didn’t respond to requests for comment.) OkCupid allowed another registered sex offender, Michael Miller, of Colorado, to create a new account after his 2015 conviction for raping a woman he met through the site. For months, Miller remained on the platform despite appearing on the registries Match screens. Even Pennsylvania registered sex offender Seth Mull, whose 17-year history of sex crimes convictions began as a teen, used Match Group’s dating sites; in 2017, PlentyofFish didn’t flag his eight-year registry status before matching him with a woman who later accused him of rape. Mull is now serving life in prison for her rape and two more rapes, among other sex crimes.

Asked about the CJI data, Match Group’s spokesperson said the 157 cases “need to be put in perspective with the tens of millions of people that have used our dating products.”

The company declined multiple requests to interview executives and other key employees familiar with its protocols for addressing online dating sexual assault. The spokesperson described the steps the company takes to ensure customer safety on its platforms — from blocking users accused of sexual assault to checking across its apps for accused users’ accounts and flagging them on a companywide distribution list. Other response protocols aren’t standardized across Match Group apps.

In a brief statement, the company said it “takes the safety, security and well-being of our users very seriously.” Match Group said “a relatively small amount of the tens of millions of people using one of our dating services have fallen victim to criminal activity by predators.” It added, “We believe any incident of misconduct or criminal behavior is one too many.”

Interviews with more than a dozen former Match Group employees — from customer service representatives and security managers at OkCupid to senior executives at Tinder — paint a different picture. Most left on good terms; indeed, many told CJI they’re proud of the successful relationships their platforms have facilitated. But they criticize the lack of companywide protocols. Some voice frustration over the scant training and support they received for handling users’ rape complaints. Others describe having to devise their own ad hoc procedures. Often, the company’s response fails to prevent further harm, according to CJI interviews with more than 100 dating app users, lawmakers, industry experts, former employees and police officers; reviews of hundreds of records; and a survey of app users.

Even the screening policy on the one site that checks registries, Match, is limited. The company’s spokesperson acknowledges that the website doesn’t screen all paid subscribers. The site has argued in court for years that it has no legal obligation to conduct background checks, and it fought state legislation that would require it to disclose whether it does so.

Markin, whose civil suit led to the registry policy, cannot help but feel the company has failed to deliver. Calling registry screenings “the easiest kind of cross-checking,” she said she had expected Match Group to embrace the practice.

“I did something to help other women,” she told CJI. “It’s disappointing to see Match did not.”

Susan Flaherty grew up in the 1960s outside Hoboken, New Jersey, where she developed a style that her daughter describes simply as “Jersey”: “big-haired, blonde, blue-eyed and loud.” With a head for numbers, she got a degree in finance and spent most of her adult life working as a mortgage broker.

In the mid-1990s, she walked into a bar near Naples, Maine, and came face to face with Denie Deveau, a bartender. They got married and had two children. Seven years later, they divorced. Susan kept her husband’s last name. She bounced from relationship to relationship after that. She always thought she “needed a man to come take care of her,” her 24-year-old daughter, Jackie, said.

Papamechail grew up in the 1960s in Peabody, Massachusetts, just north of Boston. He came from a prominent family that owns a construction company. Since the late 1980s, Papamechail has built a rap sheet consisting of eight criminal convictions, four of them sex crimes. He has pleaded guilty to three separate rapes.

His first rape conviction in 1987 involved a neighbor and resulted in an eight-year prison sentence and a 10-year probationary period “with special conditions to undergo sex offender treatment.” Court records show Papamechail served one year in prison and later violated his probation. Within four years, he was convicted of rape again for two more incidents. During that case, he told police he had a “problem” and needed “help,” court records show. He spent another four years behind bars. By 1994, he had spent yet another year in prison after his second conviction for indecent assault and battery, a sex crime in Massachusetts. Court records show Papamechail has served a total of at least eight years in prison. The state officially designated him a sex offender.

Papamechail declined to comment for this article. He told a CJI reporter over Facebook that “if you ever contact me or my family again I will reach out to the Massachusetts courts.”

In 2014, Papamechail became familiar to sex crimes detectives again. This time, a woman he met through PlentyofFish accused him of raping her on their first date. The claim put him in county jail without bail for two years; he was eventually acquitted after a weeklong jury trial. Still, law enforcement officials raised his sex offender status to the state’s most dangerous category, Level III, deeming him highly likely to offend again.

By the time PlentyofFish matched him with Deveau, Papamechail’s heightened status meant he would have already appeared on the state’s sex offender registry — something that PlentyofFish didn’t check, the company confirms. At the time, Deveau, a recovering alcoholic, was living in a sober house near Papamechail’s home. Over the ensuing months, the pair chatted online. They texted and spoke on the phone. They met in person; she went to his apartment twice.

Then, in October 2017, Papamechail picked up Deveau for what would be their final date, court records show. They went for dinner and returned to his home. She “expected to just hang out together,” court records note she told the grand jury, but he had “other plans.” They got into a fight. “He wanted her in the bedroom,” according to her testimony, “but she said no.” Around 7:40 p.m., court records show, she called the Peabody emergency dispatch service for help.

Deveau told the 911 dispatcher “a man was trying to rape her and had threatened her,” the court records state. “He’s coming,” she told the dispatcher, dropping the phone.

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