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KEYWORD NOTICE – Dating app abductions raise fears for LGBT+ safety in South Africa

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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Thabsie Mabezane, a transgender woman and LGBT+ activist in South Africa, was aware of personal safety when she met a man on the dating app Tinder earlier this year.

She told him that she preferred to meet up in a public space instead of at his home. But as she waited at their meeting point in Johannesburg an unregistered car pulled up and a man with a gun got out and coerced her into the vehicle.

Mabezane said she was taken to an abandoned building where her kidnappers demanded she call friends and ask them to send money, she told Reuters. One of those she called who is a traditional healer managed to persuade the gang to let her go without a ransom after holding her for several hours.

Mabezane didn’t report the incident as she feared she would not be believed.

Tinder said it encourages users to report any crimes to local law enforcement, and that it has a dedicated team which would cooperate with them to help serve justice. It also said it provides reporting mechanisms through the app and works to detect signs of fraud and review suspicious profiles.

“The safety of our members is of the utmost importance,” said a Tinder spokesperson.

Cases like Mabezane’s are on the rise in South Africa and have prompted debate about how to protect dating app users from kidnapping and extortion. LGBT+ individuals are often targeted because of hatred and intolerance, police and activists say.

“The SAPS (South African Police Service) has noticed a trend where perpetrators are targeting unsuspecting individuals on social media networks including dating apps,” said SAPS national spokesperson Athlenda Mathe.

“We have arrested and taken down a few syndicates [gangs]that were targeting the gay and lesbian community,” Mathe said.

Vision Tactical, a local security firm, has called for the dating app Grindr to be banned in South Africa due to the “alarming rise” in incidents where gay men have been lured to locations where they were physically assaulted, robbed and held hostage, it said.

“We are dealing with a syndicate that’s kidnapping three or four people per night,” said Vision Tactical director Yaseen Theba, citing a study the company conducted over six months.

In one prominent case in September, an 18-year-old student was kidnapped in Johannesburg after meeting someone on Grindr. He was later rescued and seven suspects arrested, police said.

“We at Grindr are acutely aware of this deeply troubling situation,” a company spokesperson told Reuters, referring to kidnappings of people who had used the app to arrange meetings.

Grindr has integrated a number of safety features into the app such as a video calling feature partially to allow users to verify that the person they are talking to is the person they claim to be before meeting, and issued a safety warning that users in South Africa receive daily. “We are continuing to explore further solutions to this crisis with local partners,” the spokesperson said.

Some activists said that banning Grindr would further marginalise the LGBT+ community.

“I don’t think it’s necessary (for Grindr) to be banned. That means heterosexual people can use these apps, and they can have good times and good moments finding love, but because you are queer or homosexual you can’t,” said kidnapping victim Mabezane. “There’s a problem with equality there.”

(Reporting by Thando Hlophe; Additional reporting and writing by Nellie Peyton; Editing by Alexander Winning, Alexandra Hudson)

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