It was a normal day at work for 18-year-old shop assistant Emma* when she came face-to-face with her Tinder stalker. Head down, stuck in the monotonous rhythm of scanning and packaging items, she was initially confused when he approached her. “Why haven’t you been replying to me?” he demanded. She didn’t immediately recognise him, but he continued threatening and questioning her. That’s when she realised: it was the guy from Tinder.
Earlier this year, a newly single Emma had decided to give Tinder a go. “When I first matched with him I thought he was lovely,” she tells VICE. “He was exactly my type and ticked every box. He seemed really sweet at the start, but then within a few days he started to get very possessive and questioned why I wasn't replying quickly enough.”
She decided to call it a day. But instead of respecting Emma’s wishes, the man began to harass her. “His messages got incredibly threatening after I told him that I wasn't too interested in him. Some fat shaming me, some telling me I wouldn't ever find someone like him that would accept me the way I am, and others saying he would come and find me.”
If you’re a millennial woman who uses dating apps, it’s likely you’ve received the dreaded “heyyy, found u from Tinder ;)” message request on social media. “Tindstagramming” (yes, it’s so common there’s a name for it) is the act of finding an individual’s social media profile after you’ve failed to match with them, and is what happens when someone can’t take no for an answer. But some cases are more extreme than an unwanted DM – in Emma’s case, it ended up with IRL harassment and stalking.
After Emma’s match turned abusive on Tinder, she blocked him on the platform. He subsequently attempted to contact her on her social media accounts and even reached out to her friends in an attempt to communicate. “When my friends first told me he messaged them, I thought they were taking the piss, but when they sent the screenshots to me it just made me feel so terrified. I felt trapped.”
After a few weeks of not hearing from him, she thought he’d finally left her alone. That’s when he began to repeatedly show up at her work. Emma never chose to meet her stalker offline and is relatively private online. She never told him where she worked, but believes that he found her through Tinder as the app automatically integrates your job role to your profile.
Emma’s case is extreme yet unfortunately not uncommon, and is just one of many reported dating app stalking cases in the UK. In January, Tinder launched a new US safety feature that syncs with the personal security app Noonlight, allowing users to alert emergency services on a Tinder date and screening accounts for fake images to prevent catfishing. The feature has been touted as a huge advancement for personal safety.
Tinder declined VICE’s request for comment, but Emma feels positive about the new safety features. “I think the emergency services one would definitely have been helpful back then, especially when his messages took a turn,” she tells me.
Alerting emergency services of threatening or worrying behaviour might help to catch these cases early on, but if research into stalking has shown anything, it’s that emergency services are often too late to respond to women’s calls for help. Between 2015 and 2017, 55 women in the UK had been killed by abusive partners, exes and stalkers they had already reported to police, according to a Broadly investigation.
21-year-old university student Melissa* matched with her stalker on Tinder. Like Emma, Melissa never suspected him, but tells me there was something not quite right about him (“I should’ve just listened to my gut”). After a couple days of texting, she thought it was only fair to call things off with him before he got the wrong idea.
He initially took the rejection well. Then he started showing up outside of her university lessons. “One day when I was leaving my class, I saw him there and he had mentioned that he also went to that campus so I didn't think much of it. Then he started constantly texting me within an hour of seeing me and then I realised it wasn't a coincidence that he was there.”
He then began to excessively call and text Melissa. “He started getting more aggressive about wanting to meet up and was constantly showing up to my classes waiting for me to come out,” she says.
His persistent harassment and tracking frightened Melissa so she contacted her university’s security, but to no avail. “Turns out there isn't much that they're willing to do until someone physically lays a hand on you,” she tells me.
London-based charity Suzy Lamplugh Trust tells VICE: “Any form of stalking or harassment, both off and online, can have a devastating effect on victims. We would urge anyone who believes they might be affected by stalking to complain to the police, either at their local police station, or call the non-emergency number and make an appointment.”
The Trust also recommends reporting through the app itself : “We would encourage anyone being stalked by someone on a dating website to report the person through the site’s recommended procedures and follow the safety advice set out there. Tell the person once that you do not want any contact, and then do not respond further. If you ever feel at immediate risk of harm, call 999.”
“Does This Bother You”, another new Tinder feature, might help to prevent future stalkers like those who targeted Melissa and Emma. If an individual selects “yes”, they have the opportunity to report the person straight to Tinder. But these improvements come a little too late for some: both Emma and Melissa never used Tinder again.
Emma’s case has a happy ending – after security staff at her workplace intervened, the man never contacted her again. She decided to swap apps and found her now-boyfriend on Bumble.
But what began as a simple swipe right for Melissa ended up in her changing her daily routine and life just to ensure her own safety – she had to swap classes and get a new phone number. The experience has never left her, even after she graduated. “No matter what I did,” she says, “I never felt comfortable at that campus again.”
*Name changed to protect identity