Concerns for the safety of dating-app users soar after the kidnapping of an 18-year-old student.
A Wits University student is recovering in hospital after being kidnapped by a group of men who had allegedly lured them through online dating app, Grindr.
The victim was found by police, bound and unconscious, on September 20 at the Denver Men’s Hostel and taken to Milpark Hospital for treatment. Seven suspects were arrested and charged with kidnapping and extortion, with police recovering three knives and the student’s belongings in their possession.
Police are investigating if the suspects have links to numerous other cases of a similar nature in Gauteng.
The student is currently staying at one of the university’s residences and on September 19, their roommate reported them missing after not returning from meeting with someone from the app.
“A Wits warden informed [Campus Protection Services (CPS)] that a student was reported missing by his roommate,” said Wits spokesperson Shirona Patel. CPS then immediately alerted the South African Police Department (SAPS). “They worked to track down the student… CPS were a central part of this team and acted swiftly,” added Patel. The university says that this is the first case of this nature that they have been made aware of.
The kidnappers contacted the student’s family and demanded tens of thousands of rands in ransom money.
SAPS Gauteng spokesperson Brenda Muridili said that a large group working together to recover the student were led “to an ATM where one of the suspects was expected to withdraw the ransom money on the M2 Road. The police held an observation and then placed the suspect under arrest [as] soon as he arrived.” The suspect then led the police to the hostel.
Grindr is a popular social networking and online dating app that sees around 3.6 million online daily users worldwide. The app is targeted towards the queer community (mostly men – 69% of users) looking for, as the AfroQueer podcast describes it, “hookups, relationships and love… and some other things in-between.”
However, this app has been an ever increasing medium to facilitate organised crime.
There have been numerous cases where users have been targeted by people who robbed, assaulted, raped, kidnapped and/or murdered them. The app itself issued a warning to its South African users over the rise in kidnapping’s linked to their own platform earlier this year.
Noma Sibanda, who is a representative from LQBTQIA+ rights-oriented society Activate Wits, said that the “app itself is not safe because anyone can open a fake account”. There is no verification process when opening a Grindr account and anonymity is synonymous with most profiles, largely due to stigma, which criminals take advantage of.
“When speaking to someone romantically, people can be misled easily… so when meeting up for the first time with someone on the app, do so in a public place with other people,” said Sibanda.
Activate Wits says that this event “not only causes physical or psychological harm but also perpetuates a culture of silence and fear… [Criminal syndicates] capitalise on this because it is easier in South Africa to be operational because they believe they can get away with it,” added Sibanda.
Sibanda hopes to work closely with the university for victims to come forward and report crimes as “it may be easier for the queer community to speak (and open up) to others in the community”.
FEATURED IMAGE: Student activists pose on the Library Lawns while facing the Wits Great Hall. Photo: File
- Wits Vuvuzela, Atrocities of human trafficking and smuggling, October 2018
- Wits Vuvuzela, Rhodes students warned about kidnappings off campus, April 2018
- Wits Vuvuzela, ‘We are queer, and we are Witsies’, April 2018