The date was going badly. Thirty-something Lauren Wheeler* was in a retro St Kilda bar with an older guy she’d met on Tinder who was using her credit card to buy another round of drinks.
- Police say they cannot compel dating app companies to block users like sex offenders
- Glenn Hartland continued to use dating apps like Tinder even after he had been released on bail for sexual assault, according to victims
- Match Group, owner of several online dating apps, says it does not tolerate sex offenders on its platforms
On his Tinder profile, Dylan had portrayed himself as a journalist, a law student, a philosophy aficionado, someone with a deep intellect.
This was their third meetup, they’d been joined by a weird group of men, and Dylan had just got into a fight with some guys on the street.
Lauren just wanted to get out of there, but first, she went to the toilet, down a long corridor at the back end of the bar.
She did not realise it but Dylan had followed her — right to the cubicle.
“He came in and trapped me in there,” Lauren said.
Sexual assault support services:
He demanded sex.
“He just wouldn’t take no for an answer,” she said.
“That’s when he grabbed me by the neck and pushed me up against the wall and tried to take my pants off. He actually reached in and tore my underpants off, like it was excruciating.”
“I was frightened that I was going to be raped, but I was more frightened that he was going to really physically hurt me.”
She screamed and through the sheer strength of adrenaline fought him off.
When Lauren had composed herself enough to return to their table where her handbag was still sitting, Dylan hovered her underwear under his friend’s nose.
“He was like, ‘oh, this? It’s a trophy’.”
Lauren Wheeler didn’t know it yet, but she wasn’t the first Tinder date Dylan had assaulted.
She was his third victim in less than a year and she wouldn’t be the last. He would continue to use the dating app to lure victims.
Police have told Background Briefing they cannot compel dating app companies to block users like sex offenders.
Online dating ‘fertile landscape’ for predators
Lauren would learn afterwards that Dylan’s real name was Glenn Hartland.
It would take years before 44-year-old Hartland was finally sentenced last year to a non-parole period of 11 years in jail.
He pleaded guilty to indecent assault, rape, contravening family violence orders, distributing intimate images and misusing a carriage service.
His victims couldn’t understand why it had taken so long.
In sentencing, Judge Paul Higham remarked that Hartland was a pathological narcissist who presented a high risk of reoffending.
“Once your victims fell into your orbit, they were made hostage to your dysfunctional personality,” he said.
“Such an online world provides a fertile landscape in which predators can roam.”
Just how fertile is uncertain: at present, even Australia’s police agencies say they lack data to say how prevalent the exploitation of dating apps by sexual offenders actually is.
More importantly, law enforcement in Australia doesn’t have the power to make dating app companies remove known sex offenders from online platforms, according to Susan McLean, a cybersecurity expert and former Victorian police officer.
“We need to get to a point where, when someone is charged with these offences, the police must have the ability to contact the app and go, ‘just to let you know that Billy Smith is up on these very serious charges. You need to remove his profile for this particular period of time’,” she said.
“The dating app industry really hasn’t come to the table when it comes to the safety and security of their users.”
Difficulty removing dating profiles controlled by offenders
In reality, a seat at that table would require a long-distance invitation, as most major dating app companies are located overseas, and the removal of known sex offenders from dating platforms ultimately lies with the companies.
The largest of all is the American company Match Group, with a portfolio of brands including Tinder, OkCupid, Match.com, and Plenty of Fish, that earned more than $2 billion in revenue last year.
Earlier this month, the US Government announced Match Group is under investigation for allegedly allowing registered sex offenders on its free dating sites.
It followed revelations in ProPublica and Columbia Journalism Investigations that its dating apps were allowing known sex offenders to use their platforms.
Journalist Keith Cousins told Background Briefing they had examined more than 150 cases in the US where sexual assaults had resulted from encounters organised on dating apps.
“We found that in about 10 per cent of cases, a user was matched with someone who had been accused of or convicted of a sex crime at least once,” said Mr Cousins.
Some of those perpetrators were even registered sex offenders — meaning they’ve been convicted of sexual assault or rape and placed on a register that companies like Match Group can access.
This is despite Match Group vowing to crosscheck American users against these registers in order to remove offenders from the apps.
“We do not tolerate sex offenders on our site and the implication that we know about such offenders on our site and don’t fight to keep them off is as outrageous as it is false,” Match Group said.
But even if Match Group’s checking system did work, it wouldn’t be able to access registers of offenders in Australia because legislation like Victoria’s Sex Offenders Act prevents the public disclosure of offenders’ names.
There’s also no apparent means of preventing serial abusers from creating new profiles under new aliases.
Dating profiles that target individuals
This is how Glenn Hartland lured his four victims on Tinder.
Between 2014 and 2016, he used a predatory strategy that involved creating profiles that mirrored his targets’ interests.
For his first victim, Stacey Eaton*, it was her favourite sport and her hometown connections.
“He used a photo of him playing hockey, which is a sport that I played,” she said.
“This was eight, nine weeks of a fairytale romance to start with, followed by six weeks of absolute hell.”
That all culminated one evening in May 2014, when he showed up at her front door. It was a tactic Hartland also used with the women he assaulted later.
“Because what preceded in that next 15 minutes was someone doing something to me that wasn’t normal, wasn’t right: that’s when he raped me.”
Stacey broke down in tears describing the incident.
“You know, I should have called the police. I should have done something about it, but I just was like, what are the consequences? How do you prove that someone has done that to you?”
Not restricted from using dating apps until just prior to conviction
Each of his four victims pressed charges against Hartland separately.
For Lauren and Stacey, the wait to have him convicted and put behind bars was long and painful.
They said he continued using the dating apps while on bail.
“He was abusing and harassing women online incessantly,” Lauren said.
Stacey and Lauren didn’t report him to Tinder; they assumed the police or the courts would order him not to use the app.
“What kind of evidence do you need? Because, you know, we had the evidence of him prowling online,” Lauren said.
One of the four victims ended her own life just months before Hartland was sentenced.
The three survivors sent a letter to police and the Victorian Attorney-General last March.
They questioned why Hartland was allowed “free in the community to reoffend whilst (they) we were prisoners of fear”.
“He is well-known to use online dating sites and has multiple aliases to lure women. Yet he was not restricted from using social media and allowed to potentially harm more women,” the letter said.
Stacey and Lauren said it was only after this that the court finally ordered Hartland was not allowed to use the apps or social media, just a couple of months before Hartland was sentenced.
Police have limited options
Victoria Police would not comment directly on Hartland’s case, but said: “Police do not have any direct capacity or authority to compel a social media platform or app to ‘block’ a user.”
A Victorian Police spokesperson added sometimes a court order prohibits users from using dating apps, and police can notify dating companies about perpetrators, but it’s still up to the company who they remove from the platform.
Craig Gye, a Victorian detective who works on sex offence cases said, in general, police can communicate with the dating app companies for information, but find it difficult to take it much further.
“There’s not really much we could do about that,” said Craig Gye.
“There’s not much we can do about them then re-engaging on another online platform.”
But Detective Gye said he’d be open for police to do more.
“If someone was prepared to work with the dating app to see what we could do to prevent the commission of offences, then I’ll be all for that.”
NSW Police has told Background Briefing that it’s not aware of any barriers to identifying perpetrators on dating apps and there are processes in place to get information.
Ms McLean from Cyber Safety Solutions thinks there’s both a clear lack of ability and knowledge among police about how to investigate this type of criminal activity and a lack of appetite from the dating platform companies to help law enforcement.
“We need the dating companies to come to the party and either reach out to the Office of the eSafety Commissioner, or the state and territory or federal police. And to get some sort of memorandum of understanding in place which means that the transfer of information and the obtaining of evidence is simplified,” she said.
That includes a streamlined process for police to issue warrants and get data, which Ms McLean said already exists between law enforcement and social media companies like Facebook and Twitter.
“It just means that there can be a transfer of data simply through legal documentation in Australia that is accepted by Facebook, for example, in America.”
*Names of survivors have been altered to protect their identities
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