Catfishing, phishing and sexy chat-botting: the online dating world can be a confusing place. Now Match and Tinder's parent company is gearing up to sell stocks and shares, so the spotlight is on shady practices hidden in some dating sites' code.

Free dating sites fast became an ecosystem for programmers to let loose their bot scripts - luring the sexually curious to malware or "extra" services. Meeting a robot is an inevitable part of online dating - or owning an email address. But what if the chatbot was created by the company itself?

Take Ashley Madison, which had its entire source code, internal company emails and 37 million customers' personal information dumped onto torrenting sites earlier this year. On analysis of the code, it became clear engineers had developed female chatbots, which had in turn engaged some of its male userbase.

It has been suggested by Gizmodo that Ashley Madison used these chatbots as bait to get users to pay for a premium subscription, although that allegation is unproven. 

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The world gawped as a British MP, Michelle Thomson (who subsequently denied using the website) and US actor Josh Duggar (again, denied) were revealed amongst its clientele. Now celebrity love rats are yesterday's news, the real scandal may lie in the use of chatbots in dating sites.

Using fake profiles to get customers to pay isn't unheard of. The practice has been prolific in the dating industry for several years, industry sources told Techworld. The sources wouldn't name specific sites.

Interacting with chat bots is an easy way to kill time. ©Imgur user Otauntaun

While many dating websites now adhere to a strict no-bot policy, some are happy to write ambiguous terms and conditions into their policies, allowing for fake profiles and bot relationships to flourish on the site, it's claimed.

Hookup site Cougarlife.co.uk "the cougar dating site for younger hot men to meet sexy older professional women" states in its terms and conditions:

“Our site and our service gives users the opportunity to explore their fantasies and to interact with others in the Site. However, there is no guarantee you will find a date or partner...

"Our site and our service also is geared to provide you with amusement and entertainment. You agree that some of the features of our site and our service are intended to provide entertainment."

Websites can justify creating profiles to test UX and the mechanics of their site, but credible companies ensure that real human beings (IRL) can't engage with them.

The UK's online dating regulatory board tests applicants and insists sites sign an agreement to offer its services safely, and ethically. While its main priority is the safety of UK online daters, the trade body advises against chat bots.

The Online Dating Association's chief executive George Kidd tells Techworld: "There was a reputation a couple of years ago for fake profiles, but we don't believe in conning people to pay subscriptions. We set up terms on the application saying, we say on every application profile, 'do you understand, no fake profiles'. Some of the companies asked what to do if they wanted to up a profile to test if the site is working. We said yes, as long as users can’t engage with that profile and get excited or attracted to it."

Which dating sites can you trust? How to tell if I'm in love with a bot

Cougarlife.co.uk promises divorcees young men, but reminds users that the site contains profiles that may not be "genuine"

While decisions to engineer fake profiles are entirely up to the sites themselves, dating companies signed up to the Online Dating Association are a somewhat safer bet. That said, plenty of reputable sites such as the Inner Circle or Zoosk aren't members at the time of writing.

Current members include Christian Connection, Dating Factory, The Dating Lab, eHarmony, Freedating.co.uk, lovestruck, match.com, muddymatches.co.uk, mysinglefriend.com, Oasis.com, The Guardian's Soulmates, Asiansinglesolution, TrueView, Would like to meet and Supercardating.com.

Large dating site Plenty Of Fish isn't signed up to the Online Dating Association. It was just bought by Match group.

Which dating sites can you trust? Reading the small print

Reading terms and conditions is the simplest way to see if a company has made a disclaimer about its code.

Adult.co.uk says: "The site is an entertainment service… By using this service you accept that any member profiles, messages and communication may not be genuine."

eHarmony says in its terms and conditions: Not all registered users are available for matching. From time to time, eHarmony may create test profiles in order to monitor the operation of the Services.Unique and bona fide profile. When asked about bots, eHarmony said: "eHarmony does not participate in this practice and would consider it unethical to do so."

Plenty of Fish, with three million active users daily, states: "This site is an entertainment service."

OKCupid, which boasts over a million app downloads per week, is not signed up to the trade body, but also uses fake profiles to test its services, it states in its terms and conditions. It didn't respond to Techworld's emails.

Zoosk states: "You agree that not all users are available for matching and that Zoosk may create test profiles or accounts to monitor the operation of the Services."

And Ashley Madison states: "Our Site and our Service gives users the opportunity to explore and improve their abilities to interact with others in the Site. However, there is no guarantee you will find a date or a communication partner on our Site or using our Service. Our Site and our Service also is geared to provide you with amusement and entertainment. You agree that some of the features of our Site and our Service are intended to provide entertainment to our users."

Which dating sites can you trust? Will turning these companies public clean up companies’ acts?

"People used to see online dating as a bit peculiar and a bit niche. I think all that's gone. So many people date this way it is a part of everyday life. It doesn’t always go right - but it’s a heck of a part of the social fabric. Now financial institutions are managing a launch on this scale it really proves it. I hope if we get it right in the UK with our ODA members, we can see similar trade bodies set up internationally," adds Kidd.

It’s unlikely that larger dating sites still need to rely on bots to get its user base up, but warning signs are free sites that need to entice you into subscriptions and "adult sites". For now it's difficult to tell exactly what is going on in the code. Pressure from shareholders and recent publicity scares surrounding Ashley Madison's hack as well as Match and Plenty of Fish's malvertising insecurity will change dating companies outlook on security and business models.

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