But the user records laid bare by hackers last week tell a very different story: Of the more than 35 million records released, only 5 million — a mere 15 percent — actually belonged to women.
This discrepancy may be the smoking gun that proves something angry users, industry insiders and government watchdogs have alleged for some time: that when it comes to reporting their own user numbers, paid-dating sites distort, manipulate … and sometimes straight-up lie.
“Ashley Madison has paid people to write profiles, and they’ve allowed fake profiles to proliferate on their site,” said David Evans, an industry consultant who has contracted with Ashley Madison in the past and has tracked the business of online dating since 2002. “Tons of sites are guilty of that. That’s not news.”
It may be news, however, to the legions of paying online daters who have treated tales of “date bait” as message-board apocrypha — and not as a tangible, industry-wide practice that they themselves have encountered.
Ryan Pitcher, who spent two years in the late aughts running a fake-profile team for Global Personals — parent of the massive, multinational dating platform WhiteLabelDating.com — explains the scheme like this: Paid-dating sites only make money when potential customers believe they’re sitting on a huge pot of available dates — so many dates, in fact, that it’s worth ponying up 20 or 30 dollars a month just to message them.
For lots of sites, acquiring such a pot is pretty easy. If you’re a niche site running off a platform like White Label — which thousands of niche dating sites do — that partnership will frequently come preloaded with a database of real users. Meanwhile, if you’re peddling run-of-the-mill, straight-laced dating, a la Match or eHarmony, you can just buy Facebook ads and run 10-second spots on TV.
“Adult dating” and hook-up sites have a serious problem, though, Pitcher says: While they have no problem attracting interested guys, they absolutely bomb when it comes to women. Some of that has to do with openly misogynist marketing; some of it relates to women’s well-conditioned social and sexual roles; much of it has to do with the fact that being a rare woman on a site full of desperate, oversexed, uninhibited dudes is objectively terrible.
Whatever the exact cause, on the adult sites Pitcher worked on, real women accounted for less than 2 percent of total profiles. And so he and a 28-person team, working in Global Personals’ vaguely named “admin” department, spent their work hours crafting very sexy, very fictional profiles and messaging users from them. Profile-writers made roughly $25,000 a year, with bonuses for hitting certain monthly subscription targets.
“There is, undoubtedly, widespread pseudo profiling and fake messages still going on in the industry,” Pitcher said. “If you don’t have pseudos to try and fulfill the sexual desires of these men … men wouldn’t keep signing up.”
Evans, the industry consultant, agreed: “Look at Fling.com or Adult Friend Finder, the two big sex and hook-up sites,” he said. “You know after five minutes that there isn’t a single real woman on there. Somebody like Fling, they make money by BSing everything.”
Unfortunately, despite even the allegations of insiders, it’s very difficult to prove the extent of fake-profiling. While Pitcher says some companies fake their profiles in-house, as his did, it’s also common for firms to outsource this work abroad — where it’s more difficult to track.
Eastern Europe does a bustling, well-documented trade in quote-unquote “translators” — college students and other English-speaking women who receive a small fee to pose, to Western men, as interested daters. Russian-language job sites brim with the postings: “Needed: an interpreter … [to] correspond with foreigners in chat rooms and by letter,” reads one listing that appeared on Vkontakte recently. “Knowledge of English is a must … initiative and the ability to keep the conversation going are welcome!”
The going rate for this kind of work, the Kyiv Post’s Daryna Shevchenko reported in 2013, is between 50 cents and five dollars a message. Many young women work out of agencies that interface between them and their dating site clients — which have reportedly included sites like Cupid.com and Flirt.com, two major international dating sites.
None of this has escaped the notice of the Federal Trade Commission, the U.S. agency responsible for protecting consumers against fraud. In 2014, the agency fined JDI Dating, a group of 18 dating sites, for messaging visitors from computer-generated “profiles,” and then charging them money to respond. The FTC’s equivalents in Australia and the U.K. have also investigated dating sites for the same practice — but without solid results.
A spokesman for the British Information Commissioner’s Office said that, despite a popular BBC documentary that raised concerns about the practice in 2013, the ICO eventually concluded that policing fake-profiles wasn’t a priority. Even in the U.S. — where the FTC’s Midwest director, Steven Baker, says industry executives have repeatedly approached him with “concerns about the use of fake profiles” at some sites — the practice remains more or less unchecked.
“We’re a small agency, we really are,” Baker said. “I can’t comment on specific cases … [but] we continue to be concerned about this.”
The Ashley Madison hack would only seem to prove that such concern is warranted: It’s pretty clear that fake profiles played a role in the site’s operation at one point, even if they don’t any longer. Until mid-2014, the company openly ran a program called “Ashley’s Angels,” in which paid AM employees messaged visitors from sexy female profiles that weren’t conspicuously identified as fictional. (They were disclaimed, of course, in the company’s small print, where AM explained the program was just an attempt to “provide entertainment.”)
Disgruntled ex-employees have also blown the whistle on what one described, in a 2013 legal filing, as an industry-wide practice. In e-mails revealed by the recent hack and surfaced by the Daily Dot, Louise Van der Velde, a former spokeswoman for the site, threatens to go to the media with the claim that there are “really no women” on the site and that they “simply rip people off.”
That same year, Doriana Silva — who worked in Ashley Madison’s Toronto offices — sued the company for $20 million, claiming she’d injured her wrists churning out fake profiles for them. While Ashley Madison’s legal team contested the wrist damage vigorously in court, they stopped short of explicitly denying that they paid people to write profiles. Evans, the dating consultant, said he was actually introduced to one of these writers on a visit to Ashley Madison’s headquarters.
“Clearly we aren’t talking about any kind of Mother Teresa organization,” said Silva’s former attorney, Paul Dollak, who represented her against Ashley Madison. “I don’t think that you need to be an insider or a person of great insight or intelligence to arrive at the opinion that AM cares a lot more about profits than about people, including its own members.”
Ashley Madison disputes that characterization, of course; in an interview with The Post, a company executive insisted that its advertised user numbers were genuine, and suggested that the hackers had released only selective records that, when taken together, threw off the gender averages. (When The Post sampled 3,600 verified records belonging to Ashley Madison users in D.C. and Northern Virginia, it also found that women represented 15.6 percent of users.)
He declined to elaborate on the fake-profile issue — which the company has previously blamed on outside spammers and scammers — or to provide any further data on Ashley Madison’s gender ratio, refusing even to confirm whether the company’s most recently announced gender statistics were still accurate.
“These numbers are being taken out of context,” the executive said, repeatedly. “These criminals have no idea how our business works. You’re not seeing everything.”
He may very well be right, of course: While most security experts now agree that the hacked data is legitimate, plenty of questions still remain about how complete and accurate it is.
But on Aug. 20, hackers released a second trove of data; and on Aug. 21, a third. As security researchers, journalists and law enforcement continue combing through that deluge, patterns are beginning to emerge. The Telegraph reported Aug. 21, citing a source close to the FBI’s hack investigation, that “many of the female profiles on the site were created by a relatively small amount of individuals.”
Were those individuals working for Ashley Madison — or against it, as scammers? There’s little doubt that, as the hacked data is untangled, we’ll finally know the real answer.