Frank Walser matched with a woman on a dating app and planned to meet her at a climbing gym. He arrived early to the date and was approached by a woman he didn’t recognize. They had a short conversation, then the woman told him she was, in fact, his date.
“I was catfished,” said Walser, a Utah resident and now former dating app user.
Walser said that the woman looked nothing like the pictures online. When he confronted her about it, she shared her own insecurities. He offered to take the woman to get a meal. She had lied about being a climber and her interests, so they had to find something else to do.
“I was just trying to be a good guy,” he said. But the interaction led to him being stalked on social media and in his personal life.
Even with good intentions, online dating apps come with a risk.
In the 2023 legislative session, House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, has proposed, once again, a bill to combat the risk, fraud and potential violence that goes hand-in-hand with online dating. HB18 acts to protect individuals using online dating apps.
Last year, the Deseret News published an article on the dilemma of dating apps. The article highlights an example of a sexual predator, the hardships of creating genuine connections on dating apps and some of the safety features that dating apps use. Those safety features, however, are not always enough and are not currently required by the state.
In November 2022, Brigham Young University professors published a study unearthing disturbing trends in correlation to online dating. The study showed that from 2017 to 2020, 14% of rapes committed in Utah occurred during an initial meetup arranged through online dating apps.
Assaults committed in relation to online dating apps are more likely to be more violent, with a significant number of women reporting strangulation and breast injuries.
College students are the most likely survivors in those cases, with males being nearly twice as likely to experience online dating app-related assaults.
“I have been a representative now for 10 years, and most of my legislation has been focused on sexual assault, child sex abuse, human trafficking and domestic violence,” Romero said.
She said the bill seems like a next step for public safety, and an important one for upcoming generations.
“This is just the way people meet people nowadays,” Romero said.
The bill would ensure that dating apps used in Utah have pop-up safety ads, promoting responsible behavior such as sharing your location with a trusted friend or relative, having a way to get out of the situation if needed, and other safety precautions.
“We’re just trying to remind people that if you don’t have consent, that is called sexual assault,” Romero said.
The bill would also make resources more accessible and available to help survivors if an assault or rape were to occur.
Romero said she is dedicated to lowering the sexual assault and rape statistics, creating a safer online dating environment. Utah’s rate of rape is higher than the national average, she said.
“The other piece is just to remind people to have a plan when you’re meeting someone for the first time,” she said.
Romero said that subtle reminders can have an impact on how dating app users react and approach meeting strangers.
This bill is the first step to addressing dating app security, Romero said. Down the road she hopes to continue creating a safer environment regarding dating apps and online-dating.
“For me, it’s really about the education piece,” she said.
Some, however, don’t believe the bill would be enough. Walser questions if it would work and how it will be tracked.
“I get that it’s trying to make dating safer,” he said, but ultimately it’s “the company’s job to implement these protocols.”
“People should be self aware and there should be things involved, but I don’t see how the state can regulate that. It would have to bring more stringent regulations,” he said.
Walser agrees that education is necessary for dating apps, but the bill, he said, is simply not enough.
He offered other ideas, such as having a panic button, similar to ride-share companies, on the dating app that automatically calls for help.
Walser also said having a short video clip of real stories about those who have been through negative online dating experiences could be helpful.
Sharing the risks attached to online dating apps before allowing access can help in educating users. Walser also suggested that apps offer a link on preventative measures for those who choose to further their education.
Users, Walser said, skim through or neglect reading the terms and conditions and don’t care to read notifications.
“Safety awareness notifications” are going to be just that — a notification that is dismissed, he said, and would not be enough to suitably make a difference in the way the online dating world functions.
Walser also questioned how the bill can track progress toward safety, especially when many assaults and rape cases are not reported.
“This bill is just fluff,” Walser said. “It’s air. It’s nothing that is actionable.”