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"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 $10 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.
"I don't know if I can disclose this," Conru says, "but recently, I had a guy do a search to see, like, White House.gov, and we found that there are lots of .govs, and a lot of "The company incentivizes members to prove they're who they say they are by sending in copies of their drivers licenses in return for a "verified" button on their profiles (similar to the little blue checks on Twitter accounts).
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.
These programs can be modified for any purpose, though designing a believable online dating companion can take considerable time and effort — perhaps too much for some of the troops at Ashley Madison.
In 2012, Doriana Silva, a former Ashley Madison employee in Toronto, sued Avid Life Media for million complaining that she suffered from repetitive strain injury while creating over 1,000 sexbots — known within the company as "Ashley's Angels" — for the site.
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.
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.
"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.
"If I wanted to boost our revenue and move to the Cayman Islands, we could probably double our revenue simply by using bots," he says.