J: Two questions: where are you from? And what’s your favourite colour?
L: Hey fellow Capricorn! I am from West Africa. My favourite colour depends on my mood. How about you?
J: I’m from San Francisco, California. My favourite colour is red.
This probably sounds like a chat you’d expect to have on Tinder or Hinge, right? The reality isn’t too far off, apart from the fact that the Capricorn woman having this anonymised conversation – 23-year-old Lou – was making money off every text she sent and received.
This exchange of messages, and the many more that followed, took place on an app called Meete, which functions, for the most part, like other dating apps: You create a profile, send likes to people of your choice and, if you match, you can start a conversation. What makes Meete different is that women can profit simply from engaging in conversations with the men they’ve matched with.
So how does it work? The app is totally free for women to use, but the men using the app have to purchase “gems” in order to match and message women. There are plenty of other ways for them to show their affection, with the option to send virtual gifts like flowers and teddy bears, which translate into points for the women who receive these gifts.
After a certain point – which could be after days, weeks or months of messaging men, depending on how consistent and popular you are on the app – women can convert these points into cold hard cash, transferrable directly to their bank account via Meete. The more women interact with people on the app – through calls, messages and voice notes – the more points they receive.
In the midst of a cost of living crisis that is hitting young people particularly hard, it’s no wonder that young women are turning to Meete to make what they might consider to be quick, easy money. If you look up the hashtag #meeteapp on TikTok (14.9m views and counting), you’ll find video after video extolling the app as an alternative method of paying the bills and, as one video states, a way of “getting a sugar daddy without the sugar”.
Megan, 18, has been using Meete for just over six months – like all the people I interviewed for this piece, she is speaking anonymously to protect her privacy. She claims to have earned approximately £3,600 through talking to men on the app. “The job I was previously at was only a Saturday job and I am saving up for a few things so the extra cash interested me,” she explains. “I’ve learned about some guys’ past experiences with girlfriends/ex’s, jobs, pets, family and hobbies [but] I keep it very generic [when I’m asked questions].”
Taylor, 23, who is also based in the UK, has been using the app for around two months and has already earned enough points to withdraw around £1,200. Like Megan, she also discovered the app through TikTok. “I started using it because I found out you get paid to speak to men on the app,” she says.
Unlike websites like Seeking Arrangement, which explicitly market themselves towards sugar daddies and sugar babies, Meete describes itself as a way to “start meaningful relationships and meet friends”. In fact, if you came across Meete on the App Store, you’d have no idea that you could use it to make money. Despite this, it claims to have over 17 million users.
So why are so many men investing serious money to message women on Meete? According to Megan, it’s not necessarily about forming romantic or sexual relationships. “Most of the conversations I have are PG – we talk about our days, jobs, hobbies and pets,” she says. “I think some men use this app to just have company. [They want] someone to talk to everyday and someone to vent to when needed.”
She’s already been on the app for six months and says she’s never met anyone who treats it like a conventional dating app. “It’s never really come to a point where a friendship is formed and usually I just have short conversations with multiple people,” she adds.
A common misconception about sugar daddies is that their only motivation for taking on a role like this is sex. In fact, a 2019 study, based on 48 in-depth interviews with sugar babies and published in the journal Sociological Perspectives, found that 40 percent of the women didn’t have sex with their benefactors. “Most sugar daddies are looking for companionship at this age,” says Seema Hingorrany, a clinical psychologist and trauma-focused therapist who has worked with a number of sugar daddies. “They have had a good sexual experience earlier [in their lives], now they are in mid-life and want to be with someone who just listens.”
Hingorray explains that for many sugar daddies, receiving attention from young women boosts their self-esteem. Of course, sex is often a part of this, as many young women on Meete have found out. “I speak to lots of men from around the world – a lot of them are from America and they are in their 30s, 40s or 50s. Most of the conversations are platonic and friendly but quite a few are quite sexual,” says Lou. “Having sexual conversations on the app gives you the opportunity to video call them or talk to them on the phone, which earns you more points.”
This is probably exactly how most people would describe a sugar daddy-baby relationship. But this isn’t how Meete advertises itself and, as a result, many of the men using the app wouldn’t necessarily describe themselves as sugar daddies, even though they pay to use the app.
“TikTok ran a commercial for the Meete app on their platform and they touted it as a dating app,” says 52-year-old Casey, who is based in California, US, and downloaded the app in April last year. (TikTok had not supplied VICE with comment at the time of writing.) “I was bored and lonely and I figured why not – I was quickly inundated with lots of young girls hitting me up.”
It cost him the equivalent of around 35 cents in Meete points to send a message on the app, and he ended up spending around £1,200 on points: “I was talking to girls all over the world. At one point I was talking to about 50 or so at a time [...] a lot of them were less than half my age,” he continues. “It wasn’t too long before some of them started hitting me up for money and gifts. One of them said, ‘You do know that this is a sugar daddy app, right?’”
But Casey doesn’t consider himself to be a sugar daddy. Instead, he says he grew “addicted” to the app and eventually spoke to over 250 women over the two month period he used it – and says he feels “scammed” and “catfished” by the women who formed relationships with him only to earn points on the app.
Jack, 46, and based in Louisiana, US, also found the reality of Meete to be very different from his expectations when he downloaded it. “After a few scrolls I noticed nothing but kids on it so I deleted my account straight away,” he says, explaining that he noticed a lot of women using the app appeared to be teenagers, despite having their age set to 18.
You have to be 18 to sign up to Meete, although, concerningly, an image on its App Store description refers to it specifically as “a dating app for teens”. But other than the age requirement – and the need to verify your profile by taking a selfie – there are few visible safety features on the app.
After signing up to the app with a fake name and fake age, I specify my age in my profile bio as 15, and upload photos of myself as a teenager to see what happens. I match with 32 men of various ages – the oldest of whom is in his 50s.
When I ask Meete to verify my profile by taking a selfie to prove I’m real – a compulsory step if you want to get paid by using the app – the bio with my fake age goes unnoticed and I receive the verification tick within hours. I’m able to go on messaging men on the app for over a week without being reported for being underage, and my profile remained active (although my verified status was eventually removed after around four weeks).
A spokesperson for Meete told VICE: “Underage users are strictly prohibited from joining our community and we are always working on preventing minors from registration and usage. We only allow adult users to download the app in the App Store and Google Play Store. We notice[d] that a few minors were using their parents’ accounts to download the app and successfully registered by lying about their age. We can hardly note them at the registration steps, so we put much importance on the real-person verification and the user feedback concerning the minors.”
But the women I spoke to who use Meete all stress that they feel safe using the app for the most part and would never meet up with any of the men they speak to in person. “I feel safe using Meete as you don’t have to give out personal data like your social media platforms if you don’t want to,” says Megan, “and you don't have to use your full name or real name.”
“I have upgraded to the gold package which lets me turn my location and age off,” Taylor says. “I have blocked a few men as some of them are expecting more like nudes,” she adds. Lou has also had to block men who have sent her explicit images without her permission. (According to Meete’s terms of service, “obscene, pornographic” content is prohibited on the app.)
While Meete might be a quick money-maker, experts warn that the confusion over what the app is actually designed for, compared to how it is used, is an immediate red flag. Dr. Kiri Addison, a cyber expert, says that the risk of personal data being stolen on dating apps is a lot more likely than most people think: “This can occur when people put too much trust in other users – it is always important to think before sharing any sensitive information with people you have met online,” she says.
“Sharing your location and other personal details could allow someone you decide you do not want to meet – or perhaps haven't spoken to already, depending on how public you make this information – to track you down in real life,” Addison continues. “Sharing this information also provides cybercriminals with ammunition to create targeted and tailored phishing attacks outside of the app, in an attempt to steal from you.”
For the tech-savvy Gen Z women using this app to boost their incomes, sharing details about how they spend their days and what they do for work might seem low-risk, particularly when it pays off in the way it does on Meete. But with online grooming reaching record high levels in 2021, it’s arguable that the app might just end up causing more problems than it solves for young women in vulnerable financial positions.