Reports of online dating-related rape have risen by more than 450 percent in six years, the UK's National Crime Agency announced on Sunday, warning that the surge in online dating had given rise to a "new kind of sexual offender."
The number of reports of people raped during their first face-to-face meeting following initial contact online rose in the UK from 33 in 2009 to 184 in 2014, an almost sixfold increase.
After gathering that data from police forces, the NCA went on to analyze more data on reported rapes taking place after an initial meeting online between 2003 and 2015, to look at the characteristics of the alleged offenses.
It said 85 percent of those reporting rapes were women and 15 percent were men. Just over 40 percent of victims had spent time in private on their first date, and 71 percent of alleged rapes that occurred on the first face-to-face meeting following online contact were committed at the victim's or offender's residence.
The numbers of rapes and sexual offenses recorded in England and Wales also rose overall between 2009 and 2014, but by just 31 percent and 19 percent respectively.
The report by the NCA's Serious Crime Analysis Section said the rise appeared to be the result of the increased popularity of online dating combined with "the behaviors and expectations fostered by an online environment." One in three UK relationships now start online and seven million UK users are registered with online dating sites, according to market research published last year.
The NCA said early analysis indicated "a new type of sexual offender" had been created through the online dating phenomenon. "These offenders are less likely to have criminal convictions, but instead exploit the ease of access and arm-chair approach to dating websites," it said. "This is aided by potential victims not thinking of them as strangers, but someone they have got to know."
Online relationships tended to progress more quickly than those offline, said the report, "as people feel freer in the anonymous online world to be more open and emotionally honest." This higher level of trust could lead to individuals taking more risks than they otherwise would and putting themselves in more vulnerable situations, it warned.
This could become dangerous given another key theme identified by the NCA's research — that offenders have increased expectations of sexual activity at initial face-to-face meetings after online contact, and these expectations differed from those of the victim. An increased sense of intimacy, online flirting or sexually explicit messaging prior to meeting, and an invitation to their date's home could influence those expectations, it said.
"Time spent communicating online or money spent on travelling to meet or on the other person may foster expectations that the relationship will progress even more rapidly upon meeting, or may even create the attitude that an individual has a right to get what they want from that meeting," said the report.
The people allegedly carrying out the rapes were different to other types of sexual offenders, said the NCA — for instance they are significantly less likely to have a previous criminal conviction.
More than 80 percent of people convicted of stranger rape have a previous conviction, typically for a serious crime, while this drops to 49 percent with those suspected of stranger rape with someone they met online — and those convictions are typically for less serious crimes.
Research showed offenders frequently used persuasion, coercion and perseverance to get victims (who were often initially resistant or indifferent) to agree to a first date early on. Some of the coercion involved persuading victims of a specific location for the date.
Other possible reasons for the increased in reports listed by the NCA included the deliberate targeting of dating sites and apps by offenders and victims having more confidence to report to the police.
The agency was keen to stress that the increased risk of certain online dating behaviors did not mean blame should be apportioned to victims.
"A rape victim is never at fault and we do not want the circumstances in which these assaults take place to cause any victim to doubt that," said Sean Sutton, Head of the NCA's Serious Crimes Analysis Section. "Sexual assault is a crime, full stop, and we want victims to feel confident reporting it to the police."
Martin Hewitt from the National Police Chief's Council said: "Regardless of the circumstances, sexual activity against your will is a crime."
Figures released last year by the UK's National Fraud Intelligence Bureau also found a big increase in scammers using online dating sites to trick people out of money. The UK public lost £34 million to 'romance' fraudsters in 2014, a 33 percent increase compared to 2013.
The NCA pointed people using dating sites and apps to the following advice from Get Safe Online, an initiative supported by the government:
1. Plan it. Say it. Do it.
It's your date. Agree on what you both want from it before you meet up. Don't feel pressured to meet before you're ready or for any longer than you're comfortable with – a short first date is fine.
2. Meet in public. Stay in public.
The safest plan is to meet somewhere public and stay somewhere public. Make your own way there and back and don't feel pressured to go home with your date. If you feel ready to move to a private environment, make sure your expectations match your date's.
3. Get to know the person, not the profile.
The way people interact online isn't always the same face-to-face. Don't be offended if your date is more guarded when meeting in person. or if things don't progress as fast face-to-face.
4. Not going well? Make your excuses and leave.
Don't feel bad about cutting a date short if you're not keen. You don't owe the other person anything, no matter how long you've been chatting or what's been suggested.
5. If you're raped or sexually assaulted on your date, help is available.
No matter what the circumstances, sexual activity against your will is a crime. Police and charities are here to help and support you. Contact Rape Crisis or The Survivors Trust or for more information and advice, including other charities and support groups, visit Derbyshire Police's Sexual Assault Hub.
Follow Miriam Wells on Twitter: __@missmbc