Angela is a 34-year-old single woman from Alabama. She’s a Leo. According to her online dating profile, she is 5’8” with blue eyes and dark brown hair. “I am a creative, witty, intelligent girl looking for someone to shower with all my love and affection!” she declares, appending a smiley face.
Angela was included in a 1,000-pack of allegedly single, supposedly American women, which Betabeat purchased for $35. Her profile is one of a purported 14.9 million for sale on SaleDatingProfiles.com, where the inventory also includes 10,000 U.K. profiles for $200; 15,000 Russians for $240, and 70,000 Australians for $95. A pack of 2,500 lesbian profiles goes for $120, or 4.8 cents apiece; gay men are .003 cents each and are sold in a pack of 410,000. “High quality Gays adult dating profiles for sale with multiplay photos located in USA, United Kingdom, Canada and other countries,” the offer states. At the time of writing, SaleDatingProfiles was having a 75-percent-off spring sale.
Angela, who asked that her last name be withheld, has been dating online for years. But she never imagined her profile was for sale on the open market, or that it now appears on MeetGirlsGuys.com, which she never signed up for. “I have never even heard of that site!” she said, adding that she lives in Texas, not Alabama, and the photo is at least seven years old.
Online dating is a fast-growing industry, with current revenues estimated to run between $1.5 and $3 billion a year. But every new dating site faces the same problem: finding souls to mate. Recruiting new customers is expensive; industry experts put the customer acquisition price at $1 to $5 per person.
SaleDatingProfiles and its competitors BuyProfiles.com and DatingProfilesSale.com offer a shortcut. They sell bulk packages of profiles that seem to include a fair number of actual singles alongside somewhat more questionable Russian beauties, Nigerian bankers and half-empty profiles, which sometimes sell for less than a dime a dozen.
Betabeat emailed 208 men and women whose profiles are being sold on SaleDatingProfiles. Most didn’t reply; 35 emails bounced. Only five people responded, none of whom knew their profiles were for sale. Harry Lin, a 61-year-old in Switzerland, noticed that a profile he started at Jumpdates.com had somehow made its way to Mega Dating and the now-defunct Sensual-Attraction.com. “They have my email, user name, birthday and *former* Jumpdates password!” he wrote in an email.
Buying and selling profiles is just one of many unsavory tactics in the online dating industry. One site owner referred to these practices as “black hat dating.”
“There is a lot of tricky stuff that people do out there that most people don’t know about,” said David Evans, who started the profile editing service Profile Doctor in 2002 and now writes the blog Online Dating Insider and consults for dating startups.
The industry has been dominated by a few giants for about a decade: eHarmony and Match.com, which each claim 20 million members. But recently, niche sites like JDate, ChristianMingle, AsianBeauties.com, Must Love Pets and FarmersOnly have become trendy.
Each new dating site needs faces for its catalog, and much of the dubious behavior is driven by the need for more profiles. “I talk to dating startups a couple times a week,” Mr. Evans said. “Everyone wants to talk about the cold database problem.”
A close cousin to the profile seller is the “white label” dating service. Want to start a new dating site? White label databases are often used to pre-populate niche sites. With services like Dating Factory, WhiteLabelDating or World Dating Partners, you can tap into a large database, slap your logo on top, and advertise that you have hundreds of thousands of members. As new people sign up for your site, their profiles get copied into the main database to be reused by other sites.
Sometimes the white label-powered sites ask new customers where they want their profiles to appear, but usually it’s a clause buried deep in the terms of service that allows “affiliate sites” to share profiles. Did you sign up for HotEquestrianDates? Your profile might show up on BikerRomance—which could make for an awkward first date. But since daters tend to find out about this practice when they get a message from someone who’s interested, the transgression is often forgiven.
World Dating Partners, an 11-year-old service based in the U.K.that claims 6.5 million active profiles, makes sure each message appears as if the sender is registered on the same site as the user. “We’ve got large sites in our system,” Mark Edwards, sales director for World Dating Partners, told Betabeat, although he declined to name any clients. “We have a very strict policy, like a doctor-patient relationship.”
Companies that own many dating sites also share profiles across their networks; for example, profiles from HornyMatches.com might be shown to people on LonelyWivesAffairs.com, both of which are owned by PimpMansion.com.
Beyond the cold database problem and its problematic solutions, scammers remain an issue on online dating sites. Fraudsters living in Eastern Europe put up thousands of fake profiles for girls who claim to need money for a visa, Mr. Evans said. “You can always tell a fake Eastern bloc profile,” Mr. Evans said. “The 22-year-old girl who looks like she’s 14, and she’s got her boobs out and she’s squished them together with her elbows… ‘I would like to be meeting you.’ The minute you see that fractured English you know. But people don’t see that, because dating sites sell hope.”
A few years ago, he realized a curious thing that bodes poorly for anyone who hopes to find true love online. “Guys will pay $25 a month just to flirt with people on the Internet even if they are fake,” he said. “Millions of men spend money just to flirt with women that they know they’re never going to meet.”
For the online daters who wrote back to Betabeat, the hazards come with the territory. “When a profile is written in fluent English and I receive messages that are grammatically poor, then I get suspicious,” Saleem Siddiqui, a 42-year-old Londoner, said in an email. “Also, many of the ‘fake’ members say they live in the UK but never use British spelling (e.g. colour instead of color). However, I haven’t experienced anyone trying to extort money from me in recent years.”
Alex Furmansky, a Ukranian-born New Yorker who graduated magna cum laude from Wharton in 2007, has wanted to start a dating site since college. He quit his job last year to start Sparkology, a members-only dating site for educated young professionals, in order to avoid the kind of skeezy cruising he’d observed on sites with huge databases. Mr. Furmansky became increasingly disillusioned with online dating as he learned more about it. Hoping to get Sparkology on one of the many sites that claim to objectively rate dating services, he realized most of the reviewers wanted him to pay to play. When he asked for a candid review, he was told “it would be easier” if he had an affiliate linking program so the review site could collect a commission for referring customers.
Mr. Furmansky was further scandalized by a pitch from SaleDatingProfiles offering to sell profiles. “When we got that email, I yelled at my colleagues for even showing it to me because I didn’t want a trace of it in my inbox,” he said. “It was like a slap in the face, like, ‘is this really how it works?’”
SaleDatingProfiles is based in Israel and Russia, a representative told Betabeat over Skype, and operates 150 dating sites of its own, which she declined to name. SaleDatingProfiles says its profiles come from users who signed up for a dating site in its network. New customers must agree to terms of service that include a clause: “The Company has the right to exchange the profiles of Members with other Dating Websites in order to help our Members to find perfect marches [sic]. Also this will give them more wide choice.”
BuyProfiles.com did not respond to a request for comment. But a representative for DatingProfilesSale.com corresponded with Betabeat by email. Six years ago, he tried to build his own dating site, he said. “Nobody can start dating business without profiles,” he wrote. “People come only to dating sites where [there] are many other people.” He found a Ukrainian website that had left its profiles and email addresses exposed and copied about 100,000 profiles. Next he offered his 100,000 profiles to World Dating Partners in exchange for 100,000 additional profiles and built up the business from there. (World Dating Partners says it does not trade profiles with other sites, but acknowledged that it recently changed ownership so it’s possible such a thing happened in the past.)
DatingProfilesSale.com now has a number of large customers, he said, but he would not reveal which ones. “Yes, it’s big sites like eHarmony, but Internet companies basically keep in secret how they run [their] business. If I tell you their secrets, then they will be mad [at] me,” he wrote. “I have hundreds [of] satisfied customers but I am not sure if they want popularize [that] they buy profiles from me.”
Badoo, Match.com, OKCupid, PlentyOfFish and Spark Networks, which owns Spark.com, JDate and ChristianMingle, expressly denied buying or selling profiles. “We are dedicated to building safe, secure and authentic online communities that help strengthen the various communities we serve, and buying or selling profiles does not align with this mission,” a representative for Spark said in an email. EHarmony did not respond to a request for comment.
In general, it’s mostly small players that buy profiles, Mr. Evans said. “It’s these latecomers, like people still trying to start dating sites,” he said. “Like, oh my God, don’t you have anything better to do?”
“If you just go on some of the sketchier dating sites on the web, you start to have this experience of ‘Are these people real? What’s going on here?’” said Aaron Schildkrout, who co-founded the New York–based dating startup HowAboutWe and coined “black hat dating.” The bad actors hurt the industry, he said. “At the same time, it allows more authentic experiences like the one we’re trying to create to stand out and be a breath of fresh air in a sort of tundra of iniquity.”
Mark Brooks, a consultant and publicist who works exclusively with Internet dating companies, said he once fired a client for buying profiles. “When people have a bad experience on any Internet dating site, they just label it ‘Internet dating. ‘Internet dating sucks!’” he told Betabeat. “I don’t work with anybody who’s bad for the industry because in ten years time I won’t be working with anybody, because there won’t be an industry.”
A version of this story appeared in the New York Observer the week of March 28, 2012.