Three years after her divorce, Jyothi had given up all hopes of finding a partner when a 'good looking, young man' messaged her on a matrimonial site. The profile of E2259395 - 30 year old man, 5'4, Christian, who worked in the British Embassy, settled in London — showed 'interest' and sent her a 'Hello'. This was in 2012.
In 2020, Jyothi filed a police complaint against Joe Abraham Mathews after realising he is not the person he had claimed to be. By then, Jyothi had lost more than Rs 55 lakhs and nine years of waiting for Joe to marry her.
Three days after they started talking through the messenger app of Bharat Matrimony, Joe wanted to meet her. They met in cafeterias and malls till he took Jyothi to a luxurious apartment in Bangalore, that he claimed was his. Joe told Jyothi that his parents were in the US. A few meetings later, Joe wanted to meet Jyothi's parents; he wanted to marry her. Jyothi doubted his intentions- "Why would a man who has never been married before, has a good job and life want to marry a divorcee?" she had wondered. She asked him, "Are you sure?"
He told Jyothi that he was in love.
She had no reason to not believe him anymore. For the years following that, Jyothi sent him money, sometimes thousands, sometimes even lakhs until in 2020, when she found out Joe had been arrested for raping a woman he had met through a dating app and extorting money from her.
While dating apps are a modern phenomenon and still not very commonly accepted, matrimonial sites have been 'tried and tested' for generations of Indians for finding the 'right match'. However, these sites that make crores of money every year do not have checks in place to determine if a profile is fake.
Scams, through matrimonial apps are so common that nearly every day a corner of every newspaper has a story on it. In 2015, a government panel was set up to draft guidelines for the unregulated online matchmaking market— one of them was to make identification proof compulsory. Matrimonial companies had resisted the move saying it would hurt their business and drive people away.
For Bharat Matrimony, one of the largest matrimonial sites that was started in 1997, featured in Limca Book of records for most number of documented marriages, and boasts of 3.72 million active profiles, the identification proof is a way to get a 'Trust Badge'. But, most of these websites require no compulsory identification leading to regular reports of fraud, cheating and sexual assault.
The first time Joe proposed to Jyothi for marriage he told her that she would need to pay Rs 12 lakh- — half of the amount that will be required, he said, to get an admission in an educational institute that will ease her visa process so they could have their 'happily ever after' in London. Jyothi thought she was sending her 'Goodbye email' to him after letting him know that her 'middle class family' in Kerala will not be able to afford that sum.
"Our lifestyles are very different and this won't work out," she wrote to him.
Two months later, Joe started pursuing her again. They met again and Jyothi made him meet her parents. "He looked like a kind, decent man. He convinced my parents too," she said. While Jyothi's parents didn't agree to his plan of the marriage in London, they said they can arrange for the money if the wedding happens in India, closer to them. "I liked someone after a very long time and my father wanted me to be happy, he didn't want this relationship to end for financial reasons," she said.
That's when Jyothi started getting caught in a web of lies.
Once, Joe disappeared for two weeks as Jyothi's friends waited for the key to a house for which Joe had taken a security deposit of Rs 1.40 lakhs. He told her that his father had passed away; Jyothi later found out his father was still alive. He told her he is setting up a business in Kerala and needed money for it. He would often send her photos of the construction site, updating her of the developments. Jyothi found out later that there was no factory and Joe was in Bangalore all the while he sent her those photos. In 2016, when Joe was arrested for a rape case, he made her believe that it was 'fabricated' story by his 'jealous' business partner for money.
By the time she filed the police complaint, she had found out that Joe was married with a child in 2012 when they had first met, he cheated and assaulted several women who he met through matrimonial and dating sites, promising them marriage and that he never held a job at the British Embassy or anywhere else.
A few months ago, Jyothi saw Joe, who is out on bail, with a young woman. Jyothi, meanwhile, is struggling to pay her lawyer's fee as she is still repaying amounts of money she had borrowed from friends and family to give to Joe.
For Anooja Datta, a resident of Kolkata, trying to find a partner on matrimonial sites has been nothing less than a nightmare. "I have tried pretty much all the known matrimonial sites, they are all the same. They don't care for any checks, they just care for money," she said.
A couple of years ago, Anooja's mother made a profile for her where she found what she thought was a suitable match for her daughter- a doctor in Dubai. With some persuasion from her family, Anooja started chatting with her potential partner.
"He would send me photos, glimpses of his life in Dubai. We would use Hike messenger to chat," she remembered. A few weeks later, he told Anooja that he had some work in Syria. On his way back to Dubai, he had a layover in Bangkok when he called Anooja and asked for Rs 1 lakh. He said he was stopped by the customs office and his passport was confiscated for carrying a large amount of currency notes that he had earned in Syria. Suspecting something was amiss, she called her friend, a banker who immediately warned her that the man is a 'fraud'. The friend asked Anooja to find out his bank account details.
They discovered through the branch manager of the bank, where his account was, that it was in somebody else's name. The bank details revealed transactions with Bharat Matrimony — where he got a 6 month membership for Rs 6,000 and several other transactions worth thousands of rupees from multiple accounts— all of them owned by women.
When she confronted him, he blocked her. Anooja wrote to Bharat Matrimony, but they never responded. "People spend so much money on these matchmaking websites in the hopes of finding a partner, but they don't even do as much as a background check," she said.
"Scams through matrimony sites is yet another scam," said Rakesh Gawali, Assistant Police Inspector at Worli police station, in Mumbai. Gawali, who has worked on hundreds of cases of online frauds said that these scamsters often use phone numbers that are registered on someone else's name, the bank accounts they use to dupe are also not their own.
"For everything - vaccinations to bank accounts- one needs Aadhaar card details. Then why can't matrimonial sites make it compulsory for users to upload their identification proof?" he asked, pointing out one of the biggest flaws of companies worth crores: No verification.
On 14 January, Thane police arrested a man who used different names Aditya/Navhush/Tanmay Prashant Mhatre — accused of trapping and duping 14 women through a fake profile on a matrimonial site by posing as a senior scientist at ISRO. The accused was already married and had a son.
A woman, resident of Kalyan in Maharashtra, who he met on Jeevansaathi.com filed a complaint after he asked her to give him Rs 25 lakhs. She got suspicious because he had already swindled her for Rs 14,63,000. Inspector Gawali said that the accused kept changing his home address so it was difficult for the police to locate him. They finally came to know that he was 'fooling' another woman and was supposed to meet her in Vashi. That's where they caught him.
"The matrimonial sites are of no help when investigating such cases. When we ask them for details of an accused, they send the fake details that the person would have uploaded," the police officer said, adding, "It won't stop unless matrimonial sites put in more checks in place."
The modus operandi of fraudsters on these matrimonial frauds is essentially identifying a vulnerable person and emotionally making their way into their life, to eventually duping them. The biggest factor that favours or helps such fraudsters is the lack of information about their backgrounds, which helps them get away scot free. Meanwhile, matrimonial websites take no responsibility calling themselves just a 'medium'.
After filing her police complaint, Jyothi sent out a public tweet, tagging Bharat Matrimony's Twitter handle.
"He was cheating women with this account," she wrote. She was asked to send in details through DM to Bharat Matrimony's Twitter handle. "Is there a way you can find his details?" she asked them, as Joe's account on the matchmaking site, by then, had been deleted.
An executive of the company then called Jyothi and told her it was "impossible" to retrieve the account.
Reporting "Fake Profiles" : Does It Work?
Ravi, a digital marketer, who first made a paid account on Shaadi.com in 2020 said that he found quite a few fake profiles on the site. Some of those fake profiles, he said, were even premium members. He reported several of them.
"The major problem I saw with both dating and matrimonial sites is the authenticity of the users. It's so easy for people to use any picture in their profile. Mobile and email verification is not just enough," the 32-year-old said.
"I feel that this could be a trick of the sites to show us better profiles and make us buy premium because without that there are a lot of restrictions —you cannot message or show interest in the other person," he added.
A woman from Hyderabad, pursuing her Phd in neuroscience, said that she came across several fake profiles on Jeevansathi.com. "The guy claimed to be a doctor who practices in Edinburgh. But after chatting with him for a few minutes I understood it was a fake profile," she said.
On Quora, there are multiple questions on how to identify a fake profile on a matrimonial site. Users, who have spotted fake profiles, list out their hacks: "Will insist on early marriage". "Many vital information will be left blank". "If anything regarding money is discussed then do not continue talking to them. They are professionals so they very well know how to communicate so as to win your trust but abort the mission as soon as you feel that there is something fishy."
One of the users, a project manager at a tech company in Chennai wrote that she wrote to the matrimony site after spotting two fake profiles, but they didn't respond. Facebook, however, had suspended the accounts when she reported them.
"He said he is working in a US based company, and he is posted as Head of the department in its Cyprus office. When I checked the website of the company and its details in Linkedin, it turned out to be fake." "He shared his Facebook profile and all his friends were from Maharashtra. He said he doesn't know Marathi, but how come friends from Maharashtra," she wrote.
A fact-checker who was recently asked by his friend to verify some of her 'potential grooms' from Bharat Matrimony found out that all of them were fake profiles. "We reported them and they were taken down," he said. After chatting with them, he discovered that most of them were there in an attempt to extort money in some way or the other.
The reason why Jyothi or Anooja didn't file a case against the matrimonial sites is because they thought it would be futile. They may be right. A Mumbai based lawyer told BOOM that matchmaking sites have terms and conditions that are 'foolproof' and it's almost impossible to win any case against them, even when they have been duped by profiles hosted by the platform.
Bharat Matrimony, in their 'roles and responsibilities' section, list that their obligation is "only to provide an interface to its registered numbers to search their prospect themselves without any assistance". Just after it notes that the website will "safeguard sensitive user information", it says that it "cannot guarantee complete protection of user data, or prevent any tampering of the data by a third party".
Under the responsibility for a member, it notes that they are required to verify the credentials of the prospect. "Exercise due care and caution regarding their profile information which includes marital status, educational qualifications, financial status, occupation, character, health status etc and satisfy yourself before making a choice. BM shall not be liable for shortcoming due to any misrepresentations made by any of its members," it notes.
Shaadi.com, another matrimonial site, boasts of a multi-layered security system, has a page on 'safety and privacy' where they list an email ID to reach out in case a member spots a suspicious profile.
In 2015, the Bombay High Court ruled that a matrimonial website cannot be held responsible if a user is "careless" and falls for a common "internet scam". The ruling was in response to a woman who had filed a criminal case against a website for not informing her that her prospective groom, who had conned her of Rs 3 lakh, had deactivated his account.
Cybersecurity experts and lawyers have long demanded that matrimonial sites spend more on robust verification processes and awareness campaigns. However, not only are the websites disinterested in those efforts, some other websites have their executives resort to fake profiles to market themselves.
A West Bengal-based media professional's mother was sent at least a dozen profiles — photos of men, with names, age and profession mentioned on them — on WhatsApp, last year. The homemaker was told that if she paid a fee of Rs 4,000 a month to use the website, she'd be able to contact these men and their families for discussions.
When the woman selected the profiles of some of the men and asked to be put in touch with them, first the salesperson insisted he'd only be able to do that after a payment was made. On insisting that they'd like to speak to at least one of the selected men before making a payment, the sales professional informed her that of the profiles he had sent, some were models who had shot for campaigns and did not exactly 'exist' as grooms on the website.
"But there are many such profiles, you can see after you have paid," he said. The woman stopped entertaining calls from the company — a smaller matrimonial website.
Bharat Matrimony uses Artificial Intelligence, particularly known as 'Matrimony's Intelligent Matchmaking Algorithm (MIMA)' — an advanced match recommendation engine that combines machine learning techniques with mathematical rules to serve appropriate profiles to members. In an interview in 2019, the company said the use of analytics has led to better engagement and better sales. Shaadi.com also uses algorithms— They have an automated feature which reportedly detects gender mismatch and fake profile photos to ensure they meet the requirements of the platform.
However, the focus, of all matchmaking sites, are "finding the right match for a user in the fastest possible time" and not weed out fake profiles.
We reached out to Bharat Matrimony and Shaadi.com through their website, Twitter and emails to understand if they have any plans to improve their verification process. We have not received any response from either of them yet.
"There are many who swear by these websites after perhaps finding their partner but I am sure more people are victims of scams and frauds on these sites than people who find love," Anooja said.