ExpressVPN survey in UK reveals the dark side of online dating

Nearly one-quarter of Brits have experienced catfishing. Meanwhile, 1 in 3 respondents admit to creating fake dating profiles, and 1 in 4 acknowledge using AI to enhance their photos and biographies.
Privacy news
10 mins

Technology’s growing role in our lives has made the quest for love increasingly digital. However, this shift brings its own set of risks. ExpressVPN’s survey of 2,000 UK adults aged 18-50 highlights the dangers of online dating, including catfishing, AI deception, and revenge porn threats. This alarming trend isn’t just a matter of broken hearts but often involves significant financial and emotional consequences. 

In the UK, catfishing incidents have reportedly risen by 16% annually since 2018, predominantly originating from dating platforms like Facebook, Tinder, Hinge, Match, and Plenty of Fish. The UK also reports high losses from romance scams, second only to the U.S., with victims losing 91 million USD (72 million GBP) in the past year.

This research coincides with the Home Affairs Committee’s new inquiry into fraud, including romance scams, and highlights the inadequate responses of social media platforms. As we delve into the findings of our survey, we aim to shed light on the hidden risks lurking behind seemingly innocent swipes and messages, offering insights and advice to navigate the precarious landscape of online love—not just in the UK, but everywhere.

Almost a quarter of Brits have been catfished 

The phenomenon of catfishing, a type of dating scam where individuals create false identities on social media and dating platforms, has become a significant concern in Britain. Nearly half of UK respondents (49%) report increased awareness of catfishing in the last 12 months alone. However, despite this heightened vigilance, 22% have experienced catfishing firsthand, and 40% know someone who has been catfished. This includes 9% aware of victims under 18, highlighting the issue’s pervasive reach.

14% of catfish victims know their perpetrator    

In our survey, 37% of victims discovered they were being deceived before ever meeting in person. Conversely, 31% only realized the truth when meeting their supposed partner. Alarmingly, 25% of victims reported forming long-term emotional bonds, enduring profound betrayal after communicating with their catfisher for over a year. In a startling revelation, 14% found out that the catfisher was someone they already knew pretending to be someone else.

Social media platforms are a breeding ground for deception 

Catfishers tailor their choice of platforms to their target audience. Facebook, known for its extensive user base, is a hotspot for catfishing, being used for 35% of catfishing incidents. Tinder’s swiping culture, emphasizing quick connections, contributes to 31% of cases. The anonymity and transient nature of Snapchat, Instagram, and WhatsApp are also exploited for deception. The varied functionalities of these platforms appeal to catfishers with different motives, ranging from emotional manipulation to financial scams.

How victims are lured in   

Scammers employ manipulative tactics, such as emotional coercion, financial deceit, and blackmail, to ensnare their victims. These methods surpass simple fake profiles; they’re about creating elaborate fabrications that exploit human feelings and weaknesses.


Emotional repercussions of catfishing 

The repercussions of catfishing extend beyond mere duplicity to emotional trauma. Feedback from our respondents reveals experiences of humiliation, remorse, and deep emotional harm. Many victims, wounded by their ordeal, withdraw from pursuing love. The psychological impact is significant, with conditions like anxiety and depression becoming prevalent among those tricked. The stigma of falling for such scams often leads to victims suffering in silence, struggling with their distress in isolation.


1 in 3 Brits use AI in online dating

We all strive to make a good first impression, and advancements in technology, particularly AI, have made this easier than ever. However, when AI is used to deliberately deceive, it becomes a serious issue in the online dating world.

A desire to stand out in the crowded world of online dating has led some to turn to AI tools. 11% of those we surveyed said that they have used applications like Facetune to enhance their photos, while 10% have augmented their biographies. Additionally, 9% have employed AI to generate catchy chat-up lines, and 7% have used it to identify traits likely to increase profile engagement. 

However, the use of AI goes beyond personal profile enhancement. Deceptive practices involving AI, such as the creation of fake profiles and deepfake images and videos, are increasingly employed by scammers. This manipulation extends far beyond simple photo retouching, venturing into the realm of creating entirely fabricated identities and scenarios. These sophisticated deceptions can be particularly convincing, leading unsuspecting victims into complex scams or emotionally manipulative situations.

These realistic dating profile pictures were generated using AI technology and a single prompt. Source: MidJourney

In fact, this misuse of AI paves the way for more malicious practices like revenge porn, where AI can be used to create or manipulate explicit images and videos without consent, further victimizing individuals.

Rising concerns over revenge porn 

The rise of revenge porn—nude photos or videos released maliciously—in the UK is becoming disturbingly more prevalent. There have been a reported 10,000 calls and online reports to the Revenge Porn Helpline in the UK in 2023 alone—31% higher than the same period last year. 

The recent case of Stephen Bear, a former Ex on the Beach star, underscores the gravity of this issue. In March 2023, Bear was sentenced to 21 months in prison for voyeurism and disclosing private photographs and films of his ex-girlfriend on OnlyFans, with the intention of causing distress. 

The role of deepfake technology

The advent of deepfake technology, which allows for the creation of highly realistic fake images and videos, is fueling the revenge porn crisis. This technology enables perpetrators to create or alter explicit content without consent, leading to severe psychological and reputational damage for victims. And the apprehension surrounding the sharing of intimate images is palpable among Britons.

According to our survey, 21% of respondents admit to having sent explicit photos of themselves to a romantic partner. Of those who have sent nude images:

  • 15% are worried about potential blackmail.
  • 14% fear their images being sent to their family, indicating the depth of potential social humiliation.
  • 13% are concerned that their images might appear on the internet unknowingly, illustrating the lack of control in the digital sphere.
  • 10% are anxious about their images being sent to their employer, reflecting concerns over their professional reputation.

The reality behind online dating profiles 

Online dating blurs the line between enhancing appeal and deceptive practices. Our survey reveals common behaviors in digital dating that contribute to deception. While these actions might not always be harmful, they question the authenticity and trust in online dating.

A significant 37% of Brits admit to lying on their dating profiles, often about their age (16%), relationship history (6%), and current relationship status (4%). These might seem minor, but they add to a deceptive online culture.

34% of respondents have created a fake dating profile

The inclination to exaggerate the truth in online dating isn’t just about small lies. In fact, 34% of Brits admit they have created completely fake dating profiles. The motivations behind these profiles are diverse, ranging from enhancing dating opportunities (10%) to spying on partners or exes (17%). Though not always malicious, these fake profiles introduce added complexity to online dating, making it harder to separate genuine profiles from fabricated ones.

37% of Brits admit to lying on their online dating profiles

What do you lie about when trying to attract a partner?
Percentage of UK adults who have lied on an online dating site  

  • Age: 16%
  • Name: 11%
  • Location: 10%
  • Height: 8%
  • Job: 8%
  • Gender: 8%
  • Relationship history: 6%
  • Current relationship status: 4%
  • Physical attributes: 4%

34% of Brits admit to creating fake dating profiles

Why did you create a fake dating profile?
Percentage of UK adults who have created a fake dating profile  

  • Improve my dating life: 10%
  • Find out if my partner’s cheating on me: 9%
  • Check up on my ex: 8%
  • Conceal my identity: 6%
  • Protect my privacy: 5%
  • Do something illegal without getting caught: 5%
  • Check up on my ex’s new partner: 5%
  • Cheat on my partner: 5%
  • Stalk a friend’s new partner: 4%

Additionally, the practice of using someone else’s images, or having one’s images used without consent, is a concerning aspect of online dating. 13% of Brits have found their images used by others, and 8% have used someone else’s images.

10 ways to safely navigate the world of online dating

With the increasing challenges in online dating, it’s important to adopt strategies that protect you from romance scams. Here are key tips for safe online dating, aimed at ensuring your quest for love doesn’t risk your privacy or well-being:

1. Be skeptical of overly perfect profiles

Profiles with AI-enhanced or too-perfect photos may indicate AI deception. Look for inconsistencies in images and details like blurred features. 

2. Conduct background checks

Validate identities by checking profiles across different social media platforms. This can reveal discrepancies and confirm if a person’s online presence aligns across platforms.

3. Prioritize video and voice calls

Early in your interaction, request a video or voice call. This can quickly verify a person’s identity and reduce the chances of being catfished.

4. Be cautious with personal information

Avoid sharing too much personal information (like your address, financial details, or intimate photos) too soon. This can protect you from revenge porn and identity theft.

5. Use dating platforms with verification

Prefer dating sites and apps that offer identity verification features. Verified profiles are less likely to be fake.

6. Meet in public spaces

For initial meetings, choose public and safe places. This not only ensures safety but also puts you in a neutral environment to gauge the person’s authenticity.

7. Trust your instincts

If something feels off, trust your instincts. Better to be cautious than regret ignoring a red flag.

8. Educate yourself about deepfakes

Awareness of deepfake technology can help you spot potential fake videos or images, reducing the risk of deception.

Read more: How to spot a deepfake video 

9. Act on suspicion

If you suspect you’re a victim of catfishing or revenge porn, act promptly. Take screenshots, then block and report the profile, and consider legal action if necessary.

10. Regularly update privacy settings

Keep your social media and dating app privacy settings updated to control who can view your information and photos.

Protecting yourself online with a VPN

Beyond these steps, using a VPN can add an extra layer of security while you’re online. A premium VPN like ExpressVPN can protect your privacy by encrypting your internet connection and hiding your IP address, making it harder for hackers or scammers to target you. Whether you’re browsing dating sites or sharing personal moments, a VPN ensures your online activities remain private and secure.

What to do if you’re a victim of a romance scam 

Falling victim to a romance scam, whether it’s catfishing, revenge porn, or any other form of deception, can be a deeply distressing experience. If you find yourself in this situation, it’s important to take immediate and effective steps to protect yourself and seek justice:

  1. Document everything: Keep a record of all communications, including messages, emails, and any other exchanges. This documentation can be crucial for any legal action.
  2. Cease all communication: Discontinue any further interaction with the scammer. This includes blocking them on all platforms and changing your contact information if necessary.
  3. Report the profile: Report the fraudulent profile to the dating site or social media platform where you met the scammer. Most platforms have mechanisms for reporting abuse or fraudulent activity.
  4. Contact the authorities: Report the incident to your local police, especially if there has been financial fraud or the threat of violence. Provide them with all the documentation you’ve collected.
  5. Alert your financial institutions: If you’ve shared financial information or made any transactions, inform your bank or credit card company immediately to prevent further unauthorized access.
  6. Seek legal advice: Consider consulting a legal professional, particularly if there’s been a significant financial loss or a criminal act like revenge porn.
  7. Get support: Being a victim of a romance scam can be emotionally traumatic. Don’t hesitate to seek support from friends, family, or professional counselors.
  8. Educate yourself and others: Learn more about online scams and share your experience with others as a cautionary tale. Awareness is a powerful tool in preventing future incidents.
  9. Secure your online presence: Review and tighten your privacy settings on social media and online platforms. Consider using a VPN for enhanced online privacy and security.
  10. Stay informed: Keep up to date with the latest trends in online scams to better protect yourself in the future.

Remember, being a victim of a romance scam is not your fault. Scammers are skilled at manipulation and deception. Taking these steps can help you regain control and prevent others from falling into similar traps.

Have you ever fallen victim to a romance scam? Let us know in the comments below. 

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