This article was originally published on VICE Canada.
Morgan* woke up early on Thursday, April 21, a day intended to be spent studying for a final exam in a competitive program at UBC, to the sound of her phone buzzing.
It was an unknown number. "Hey, this is Chris. Where should we meet?"
This is weird, Morgan thought. She knew Chris, but she hadn't spoken to him for several months. They certainly had no plans of hanging out. She was typing out a reply when her phone buzzed again.
"Hey, I'm on my way. See you soon," it read.
Morgan didn't have time to react. Her phone vibrated with new unknown numbers. She read messages from John, Samir, Austin, and Clayton—names of guys she didn't recognize. The time between texts shrunk rapidly. As fast as she could type out a message to one sender, several more would flash on her phone.
"Where did you get my number?" she asked one mysterious texter. From her Bumble account, he replied. Morgan had never heard of Bumble before. Her phone buzzed again.
Morgan googled Bumble and quickly found it's the so-called "feminist Tinder" where only women can send the first message. She sent Bumble an email asking them to rescue her from the uninvited onslaught she was enduring from a dating site she never knew existed. If someone had set up a fake account for her there, she wanted it shut down now.
Maybe this was some kind of a prank—a rather unfunny joke one of her friends had pulled. It should all be over in an hour or so, Morgan thought. But her phone kept buzzing. And buzzing. And buzzing.
Then the calls started. Morgan didn't dare answer. "Where are you?" strange voices kept asking on her voicemail. Some of her would-be dates were sitting in coffee shops and pubs across the city, wondering when she would show up. Morgan was paralyzed. And the buzzing and calls kept coming.
Online dating disproportionately bombards female users with messages. The New York Times found men are three-times as likely to swipe right for a woman than women are to swipe right for a man. Women on online dating sites like OkCupid or Plenty of Fish can get anywhere between 50 to 100 messages in less than an hour.
This past October, the Angus Reid Institute found that nearly half of Canadians aged 18 to 34 say they've been harassed on social media. This number is higher for visible minorities, people who identify as LGBTQ, and women. According to Angus Reid, 58 percent of LGBTQ social media users have been harassed online and four-in-ten visible minorities say they've been harassed on social media. Eight percent of women noted that they have been stalked online—in comparison to only four percent of men.
By the time Bumble's Feedback team responded to Morgan, her morning study session had been wiped out by hours of torment from her seemingly demon-possessed phone. At around 4 PM she received an email.
Since the only way to sign into Bumble is through Facebook, Bumble is a password-free app! You can try changing your password on Facebook, or we can delete your profile. Would you like us to delete your account for you?
Morgan repeated her request for the account to be taken down. Bumble asked for her number and for screenshots of the account.
It was at this point that I met Morgan. I, like many of the other guys who were texting her, had been given the number from the fake Bumble account.
I had just returned from a run when I received the first message:
"Hey, how's it going?" Morgan's first message read.
"Pretty well. Just making a cheese dip for a party later tonight. How about you?"
"I'm good. You have a party tonight?" she replied.
"Yeah, we are saying goodbye to one of our professors. Are you celebrating the end of the school year in any way?" I replied.
"Yeah, I'm gonna party this weekend."
"Sweet. So what sort of party will that be? Going out? House party?"
"House party. Do you know any going out party?"
"Well the Biltmore is having a Nochella themed event that my friends and I might hit up on Friday. But I'd bet partying with you is a lot of fun if you want to grab drinks on the weekend ;) ."
"That's awesome. We can do that."
"Sweet. Do you want to go on Friday or Saturday?"
"Friday would be better. But I'd prefer some place closer to UBC."
"Well, we could go to Koerners. 9 p.m.?"
"What about 8 p.m.?"
"Sure. I can make that work."
"Thanks," she gave me her number. "Text me when you are there."
Fake accounts aren't uncommon on apps like Bumble and Tinder. I'd been using both on and off for around two years. I wasn't too fond of the apps, regularly joking that if you used Tinder as a guy, one-quarter of your matches would be spam bots or fake cam girls trying to steal your credit card information. They're usually very easy to spot: fake accounts will send a few flirty messages then ask to exchange phone numbers. They will then send a link over text to a website that requires giving out your credit card information to access. Pretty obvious stuff.
Whoever was running Morgan's fake account went out of their way to appear real. Asking to meet up earlier in the night at a location closer to home is common when haggling out the details of a date on Tinder. It is a practical and safe thing to do, especially on a first date.
This stranger was now playing a long game. I was told to text her on Friday, not Thursday. Contented that an unending stream of new messages was pestering Morgan, her harasser was ensuring Morgan's frustration would continue long after the account was taken down.
The lines from "Morgan" would have worked on me too—except I, wanting to make sure I didn't give up that precious Friday night by being stood up, texted Morgan immediately.
Morgan's phone buzzed—another message from a person she'd never interacted with before.
"Hey, this is Brent from Bumble. Just texting to make sure I got that number right. See you tomorrow at Koerners. :)"
"Hey Brent, could you please report that account on Bumble? It's a fake account. I've been receiving countless text messages in three hours. I'd be truly appreciative if you can report the account for reasons like 'stolen pictures,'" Morgan replied.
"Shit. That's terrible. I've heard about this before," I texted. "I can screencap the account if it helps at all."
"Please do whatever might help. Thank you so much!!!" she replied.
Her phone buzzed. Several images appeared over text. The first was of the profile. There were several shots of her during a photoshoot, and two featured her with her friends. They were all images Morgan had on her Facebook. The profile also had all of her personal information:
Location: University of British Columbia, British Columbia ~1.1 km away
By the end of the day, Morgan had received well over 80 text messages and ten phone calls. She didn't have to, but she replied to many of them.
"I did that partially because I didn't want to receive more texts and phone calls," Morgan joked. "But on the other hand, I also feel kind of bad. All the pictures on Bumble are actually my photos. [...] Although it's not the real me, it's still me."
The messages stopped by the end of the day and Bumble eventually took down the account. Morgan received a message on Saturday confirming that the account had been deleted. She sent an email back:
Thanks so much for helping.
Since you already found the fake account and each profile is tied to a unique Facebook account, could you disclose the Facebook account that was used to log in?
This is a serious tort. Not only my privacy has been severely offended by countless text messages and phone calls, but also many male users have been cheated to meet at different locations and only found out the truth when they got there.
Please do disclose the Facebook account that was used as I'm seeking for legal aid for this.
I'd be truly appreciative of your cooperation.
Bumble replied that they couldn't disclose which Facebook profile was used to create the fake account since that would be a violation of the user's privacy.
A Bumble spokesperson told VICE the company has multiple channels to report abusive behaviour, including an in-app button and feedback email. "Both of these channels are monitored by a team of hundreds of live representatives," reads an emailed statement. The company did not comment on whether they can help identify harassers.
Morgan eventually tracked down the Facebook account. It was almost an exact duplicate of her own minus her friends and her posts. It was created Thursday morning at 9 AM. The time between setting up the fake Facebook profile and when Morgan had started receiving text messages was less than an hour. Even if she complained to Facebook, whoever did this could start the incessant buzzing of her phone again in no time at all.
"It was really kind of scary to have all these unknown men calling and texting and showing up at my home. I felt threatened."
The Facebook account didn't provide any evidence for Morgan to find who was doing this, but she felt like she knew who it was. She didn't have enemies. Her program was competitive, but not enough to go out of your way to sabotage another student—especially when everyone else was also studying for exams. The person she suspected was, however, a student in her classes. They sat on opposite sides of the classroom and had only interacted a few times.
They had gone on a dinner date once, but had no further encounters.
"We didn't talk very often or hang out regularly," Morgan said. "Honestly, I didn't have much interest so we just stayed as friends. He might have had [other] thoughts, but I didn't give much response."
He still talked to her. Two weeks before Morgan's phone started buzzing, he made a move on her. Morgan rejected him and their friendship ended as a result.
"My reaction made him embarrassed," Morgan said. "I think that was the biggest reason [he may have done this]."
Morgan never confronted him after the messages stopped.
"If I knew it was him for sure I wouldn't say anything to him. If I did something worse might happen," she said. "I really wanted proof that he [did it]. But it's not that easy to find evidence. I was really depressed after the fact [because] if anyone wants to play a prank on you by using online stuff, you have no effective defence to protect yourself."
Compared to others who have experienced this kind of harassment, Morgan was lucky. The person who did this did not continue after the Bumble account was taken down. The guys loitering in coffee shops across Vancouver were mostly supportive when they found out the truth. The worry that her phone would start buzzing with unknown numbers again subsided over the following weeks. But sustained online harassment on platforms like Bumble, Tinder, or OkCupid is happening, and when it doesn't stop the results are even more terrifying.
Sarah* lived in a residence on UBC's campus. During the summer, she, like Morgan, started receiving texts about a profile on Tinder. At first, it only lasted for a day and Sarah received about three messages. A month later it started again—this time far more severely. The profile listed her number in the information section and where she lived. Instead of just setting up dates, Sarah's fake Tinder account was sending provocative messages. This account was messaging the worst Tinder pickup artists looking for easy hookups and offering them exactly what they wanted.
After a few exchanges on Tinder one guy said, "Now that we've matched maybe we should meet soonish and see if there's a real connection, since I'm not looking for pen pals on here and (hopefully) neither are you lol so if your [sic] free soon, let's meet up!"
"Want to Netflix and chill?" Sarah's fake account replied.
"Yes, sound [sic] good! I'm free in a bit, when do you want to meet up?"
Sarah started receiving messages from strangers shortly before going on a hiking trip with her sister. They had taken a rental car into the backwoods north of Squamish. She ignored most of the messages, thinking of them as harmless. Afterwards, they travelled down to Delta where they would pick up her sister's boyfriend and his friend. They were on their way back when her phone rang. Sarah's sister answered.
"Do you know this guy?" her sister asked. "He's calling you from the parking lot at your home."
Sarah was shocked, but she kept driving. They dropped the car off and began walking to a restaurant downtown. Sarah was hammering out messages as they walked, urgently telling these strangers to report the profile as a fake.
"This person who was behind the profile was interacting with people and now telling them to call me or to go to [my home]," Sarah said. "Instead of ignoring the calls, I was picking up and saying, 'You need to report this.' Amazingly, it wasn't taken down even though they must have had a bunch of people reporting it as fake."
Sarah tried to get the Tinder account taken down. She emailed Tinder and told them that someone had created a fake Tinder account in her name and they were giving out her address and number. Five hours later, a representative from Tinder named Ashley replied via email, telling her there was nothing the app could do.
"Each Tinder profile is tied to a unique Facebook account," the email read. "If someone is impersonating you, please contact Facebook's help center to file a report. If you are matched with this user or if you see him/her in your recommendations, please report them directly on the app. To do so, go to their profile, hit the menu icon [...] hit 'report,' select 'other,' briefly describe the issue and hit 'report.'"
Unlike Morgan, Sarah was not immediately able to find the Facebook account. Whoever had set up the fake account had blocked her. She wouldn't be able to report it. The Tinder guys were not as hospitable either. Several of them refused to send Sarah any screenshots or information about this fake account. "Whatever you did, you must have deserved it," one said.
By deferring to Facebook, Tinder had effectively prevented any hope Sarah had of the account being taken down immediately.
According to the email, once a fake profile is reported, Tinder will work with the victim to identify the account and delete it. But that's not what happened in Sarah's case.
"I [may have to] change my phone number at some point," Sarah wrote to a friend over email, "but that won't do anything about the fact that this person is still directing people towards my home. I'm going to the police today."
Like Morgan, Sarah felt like she knew who was giving out her number and home address. Before the first incident, she had exchanged a few OkCupid messages with a guy and given him her number. She told him she lived at a residence on campus. They had talked about meeting for coffee but made no specific plans. She decided she wasn't interested in him and stopped messaging. It didn't stop him from pestering her about going for coffee. Sarcastically, she replied, "If you'll stop texting me, I'll go for coffee with you." Within a few hours she started receiving the first of the messages from guys on Tinder.
Sarah asked him outright if he was the one who had started this Tinder account. "I am not surprised someone decided to prank you. Karma is a bitch," he replied.
On August 31, a week after the second wave of text messages started appearing and shortly after the messages from the guy who showed up at her residence, Sarah took everything she had to the RCMP. She logged in to OkCupid and found the guy's profile picture. Doing a reverse Google image search, she found his LinkedIn profile. A few sympathetic guys from Tinder had given her screenshots. She had everything she could possibly have to prove this guy had created the accounts. She told the police everything.
It wasn't enough.
The RCMP told her that because all of that evidence was circumstantial, they were not going to do anything about it.
When I asked the RCMP what they are able to do in these circumstances. Corporal Janelle Shoihet, media relations officer for the RCMP says that they are able to deal with cell phone and internet service providers.
"An investigation begins with the initial report," she said via email. "Whatever information is gained from this report would help to direct the next steps. Some tools investigators have at their disposal are: interviews, witnesses and suspects, judicial authorizations for cell phone service providers, internet service providers or social media sites. In some cases, search warrants may be required to cease evidence from people's residences."
The RCMP, however, declined to do an interview over the phone or to provide specifics over what abilities they have in tracking harassment happening on apps like Tinder or Bumble.
"I don't think they have any means or technology to do any cybersleuthing so that was pretty much useless," Sarah said.
Sarah didn't know what to do. Tinder had passed the buck to Facebook. Even then, it would be all too easy for him to set up another account. Her residence was a small open community that didn't have the same security other locations might have.
For something as small as a sarcastic quip to a person she had never met and had no obligation to, Sarah no longer felt safe in her home.
But if the police weren't going to protect her, if Tinder wasn't going to protect her, she would have to protect herself. She had his full name from LinkedIn. She texted his full name to him. "I just want to let you know that the RCMP are investigating you," she said.
It was a lie. The RCMP had told her that there was nothing they could do. But Sarah had to put an end to strangers knowing where she lived and coming to her home.
The buzzing stopped.
Thanks to some of the other guys on Tinder, Sarah had found the fake Facebook profiles. There were actually two of them. They were taken down around the same time as her telling him the RCMP was investigating.
"He had caused me a lot of anxiety," Sarah said. "It was really kind of scary to have all these unknown men calling and texting and showing up at [my home]. I felt threatened."
Tinder and Bumble have introduced more lines of defence when setting up a profile. Tinder started requiring SMS verification to set up an account—meaning that users have to link their phone numbers to the Tinder account. This can prevent users from creating multiple accounts from one phone. Bumble also introduced photo verification with plans that all users be required to confirm their identity by the end of 2017.
In their most recent update, Bumble started requiring unmoderated Facebook images. Someone setting up a fake account would have to have a searchable Facebook profile, meaning it would not be possible to create a private account and run a Bumble profile through it.
These methods are no guarantee of security. It is possible for people to get around SMS verification. Bumble also only requires one photo to be publicly available on Facebook, so the rest could be uploaded from other sources. Sites like OkCupid or Plenty of Fish work off email verification and have usernames instead of 'real' names, meaning that it'd be harder to track a fake account and even easier for harassers to give out a lot of information.
Merlyn Horton, CEO of Safe Online, has been giving seminars to parents and students on how to be protected when using social media. She travels across Canada giving presentations at schools.
When I tell Horton about Sarah's story and her inability to get help from the police, she isn't surprised. She doesn't think the police have the resources to investigate these kinds of incidents. From Sarah's perspective the police are not equipped or willing to take on these cases.
"It's hard because this is a generation where we use online media accounts as a daily habit that you post all your pictures on Instagram/Snapchat," Morgan said. "And people can screenshot those images if they want. It's probably better for all those platform—Bumble, Facebook, and other social media platforms—to check all the accounts if they are authentic. They should have effective procedures for this."
Three months after the fake accounts had been shut down, Sarah did eventually run into the guy she believes was behind the fake Tinder accounts. She was returning to campus from work and saw him with a group of friends. She immediately recognized his face from his pictures and knew she had to confront him. He denied it, laughing and calling on his friends to back him up.
"How could you have so little respect for women to have put a woman in such an unsafe situation?" she said.
"Right," he scoffed. "We're going to dinner. Want to join us?"
"I'd confronted this person. He'd basically laughed it off, shown no remorse, and made me feel like an insane person," she said to me over a year later. After a week of dealing with a barrage of messages and calls, having strangers show up at her home, and feeling like she had nowhere to turn for help, after having to lie in order to make sure her harassment didn't continue, after still living with a fear of using social media and online dating, this stranger, the person she knew was responsible but had no way to prove did it, laughed it off like it was nothing.
"There was no conclusion to it," she said.
* Names and personal information of Morgan and Sarah have been changed to protect their identities.
Follow Brent Holmes on Twitter.