Striking up a romance through a dating site or app is a well-established method of meeting people in 2016. It's also increasingly risky when it comes to rape.
Rapes related to online dating increased by nearly a factor of six -- from 33 in 2009 to 184 in 2014 -- according to a report released Monday by the UK's National Crime Agency. That's a small fraction of the number of online encounters, to be sure. Seven million UK residents are currently registered with online dating sites, according to the report. But the increased number of rapes indicates that you need to keep your wits about you when meeting strangers.
Online services are an easy, convenient and relatively safe way of forming a relationship, the National Crime Agency said. But the rapport you can build so rapidly through texts and email also has a dark side because the online services also are producing a "new type of sexual offender."
These offenders are less likely to already have a criminal record than most stranger rapists. They exploit their access to potential victims and establish trust before meeting.
Attacks mostly were committed during the first face-to-face meetings after contact was made through dating sites or apps. Eighty-five percent of victims were female.
Online dating services have been around since the early days of the Web, with major paid sites like Match.com emerging in 1995 and eHarmony in 2000. More recently, casual dating hook-up apps like Tinder and Grindr emerged.
Online relationships tend to progress more quickly than those offline, the National Crime Agency said, and emotional intimacy often leads to people feeling that they are at a more advanced stage of a relationship by the time they meet in real life. In more than half of online-connected date rapes recorded between 2003 and 2015, communications of a sexual nature preceded a real-life meeting.
In spite of the safety warnings issued by dating services, police and rape-prevention groups, many people choose not to have their first meeting in a public place. The date-rape statistics show that in 41 percent of cases, the victim and offender started their date at a private residence and that 72 percent of the rapes were committed a private residence.
The National Crime Agency is also concerned that the number of assaults reported aren't actually a true reflection of the number of crimes that have taken place. A survey it conducted in 2015 showed that rape is still chronically underreported, with crime statistics generally accepted to represent only 26 percent of the real figure. The agency hopes to change this.
"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 National Crime Agency's Serious Crimes Analysis Section. "Sexual assault is a crime, full stop, and we want victims to feel confident reporting it to the police."
Guidelines for staying safe during online dating are available from nonprofit Get Safe Online.