hristopher Russell owned a small bar in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland, but, like a lot people these days, figured he had better odds hooking up online.
Russell was 40 and going through a divorce, so he wasn't seeking anything serious. Shortly after creating his account, he got an alert that one of them had viewed his profile. In order to see more details and contact her, he had to buy credits.
When he saw an ad for the dating site Ashley Madison, which boasted 36 million members and the tagline, "Life is short, have an affair," he decided to check it out. Everyday, he received more of these come-ons — until he finally said, "Fuck it." "I'm like, ' Hey, all these women want to talk with me,'" he recalls. As anyone who's dated online knows, this is not entirely unusual. "I just figured they're not interested anymore," Russell says.
"' Let me go ahead and put in my credit card information.'"Russell paid 0 for 1,000 credits, which he could spend on sending replies or virtual gifts. After a few months of rejection, he didn't bother to log back on Ashley Madison again.
Last July, he found out that he wasn't the only one getting the silent treatment.
A hacker group called The Impact Team leaked internal memos from Ashley Madison's parent company, Avid Life, which revealed the widespread use of sexbots — artificially-intelligent programs, posing as real people, intended to seduce lonely hearts like Russell into paying for premium service. The strangers hitting you up for likes on Facebook? And, like many online trends, this one's rising up from the steamier corners of the web.
Bloggers poured over the data, estimating that of the 5.5 million female profiles on the site, as few as 12,000 were real women — allegations that Ashley Madison denied. Bots are infiltrating just about every dating service.
"It's really difficult to find them," says Ben Trenda, Are You Human's CEO."You can design a bot to fool fraud detection." But, in the case of a number of dating sites, developers aren't trying to weed out fake profiles — they are tirelessly writing scripts and algorithms to unleash more of them.It’s the dirtiest secret of the billion online dating business and it stretches far beyond Ashley Madison."They're not the only ones using fake profiles," says Marc Lesnick, organizer of i Date, the industry's largest trade show. in mechanical engineering design from Stanford, Conru is among the smartest and most respected people in the online dating business."It's definitely pervasive."have to to be careful of what I say," Andrew Conru, the founder and owner of Adult Friend Finder, tells me one morning in his corner office high above San Jose. Since he launched AFF in 1995, he's turned the site into a swinger-friendly empire that's discreetly mainstream — boasting over 30 million members who pay a month to find "sex hookups, online sex friends or hot fuck friends." But while Conru has enough millions to retire several times over, he's giving a rare interview to blow the whistle on the widespread use of sexbots in the business."The only way you can compete with fraud is you let people know it's fraud," he tells me."And it happens across the industry."Conru and AFF's CEO, Jon Buckheit, another Stanford Ph.D., boot up the site of a top competitor, Fling, and demonstrate how, shortly after registering, they are wooed by what appear to be bots. "We doubt it really is Megan Summers."In an email, Fling owner Abe Smilowitz writes, "We absolutely don't use fake profiles and bots…Us and AFF are pretty much the only guys that don't." This could be true. "We still think they do."To keep out the bots of spammers and hackers on AFF, Conru, who launched the site shortly after getting his doctorate as a means to meet women, codes his own countermeasures and frequently checks user names and IP addresses for veracity.With a Google image search, one of the women turns out to be pornstar Megan Summers. Any number of spammers and hackers might have created the profile with Summers' photo; it could be a housewife using the likeness to boost her appeal or conceal her identity. "It's a daily slog, going through hundreds of accounts every day evaluating them and deactivating them," he says."It's been a cat and mouse game for 20 years."And it's not a game he always wins.The company suffered a massive hack that exposed the profiles of an estimated 3.5 million members — which generated international headlines by revealing high-profile kink-seekers on Capitol Hill, in Hollywood and higher education.