Pimps are targeting, recruiting women through online dating websites
WASHINGTON (WJLA) — Forty million Americans use dating sites to find an evening out, a relationship, or even their life-long love.
They think they know who they're conversing with. They’ve read a potential date’s bio, shared photos, and maybe they even checked out their Facebook page.
But what they see may be dangerously different than what they get.
"It happened very quickly,” Andrea Benson said. “He had groomed me within two months, and pimped me out."
Benson is a college graduate, raised in a Christian home with a close family.
“I just really wanted to be loved. I wanted to get married and have a family. I went on an online dating website and met this guy and it was a fast and furious romance."
But what she didn't know was that "this guy”, who promised her everything, was a pimp.
Detective Chad Opitz - who specializes in fighting sex trafficking - says it’s a dangerous game of bait and switch.
“They don't do these things by mistake."
Opitz says pimps target women who they perceive as the most vulnerable.
“You're trying to exploit somebody that is more straight-laced. You get them out of their norm, and you start to have them do things they normally don't do," Opitz said.
For Benson, that meant driving a wedge between her and her family based on her spiritual values.
“It started out with alienating me from my family,” Benson said. “He knew that I was Christian, so he knew that all he had to do was get me to do a few things that my parents wouldn't like, to start to separate us."
His plan worked and she moved in.
When she eventually discovered the man she'd fallen in love with was a pimp, and not the web-designer he claimed to be, it was too late.
“He said, well I have pictures of you, and I took video of you, no one is ever going to take you back,” Benson said. “But if you stay with me, we just do this for a few months, we'll get married and we'll have kids, and you can be a stay at home mom."
Benson says she was trapped and the pimp used shame and her faith to his advantage.
“I felt like there was no way out and it was completely just mind manipulation," Benson said.
Benson says she eventually found out that she wasn’t his only target.
“He was definitely doing the same thing simultaneously with other women. When he was arrested, the police said that he was sending out over 100 messages a day and it was the same message over and over.”
Surprisingly, police and groups that work to stop sex trafficking say Benson's story is not unusual.
And that crackdowns on sites like Craigslist and Backpage are pushing pimps into less targeted spheres, like apps and dating sites.
A recent study in the peer-reviewed journal "Victims and Offenders," reports "some pimps utilize dating websites...as opportunities to recruit potential customers and/or sex workers."
One pimp told researchers his tactics include reaching out to people on free chat apps and dating sites like "Plenty of Fish," "Badoo," "Mocospace," and “Tagged."
We asked Opitz what percentage of dating websites he thought pimps were trolling to find vulnerable women.
“I wouldn't cancel any of the dating sites off the list,” Opitz said. “Wherever there are possible victims, that makes sense for an offender to go.”
Benson says her pimp was trolling on six different dating sites when he asked her out. He had no criminal record and nothing out of the ordinary came up when she Googled him.
“My tip is don't online date,” Benson said. “That's the safest thing that you can do, because you just never know who one is pretending to be. You never know."
The pimp who lured Benson into prostitution went to prison for two and a half years.
She has since rebuilt her relationships with friends and family, and says she refuses to let this define her. With the support of her family, she's using her experience as a platform to warn girls, women and parents about these dangers.
We reached out to all of the major dating sites for comment. Match group - which owns OkCupid, Plenty of Fish and Match - is the only one that responded.
You can read their statement in full, here:
Through our brands, Match Group has profoundly and positively affected the lives of millions of people. But given our scale, we are no more immune from people with bad intentions than our society at large, despite the fact that incidents such as these are very rare. Nevertheless, we will continue to work diligently to ensure that our brands are a safe space for everyone.