You've probably now heard of Ashley Madison, a dating website set up explicitly for married people looking to have affairs. Their entire system got hacked--not just member accounts and credit-card info, but internal company data, too. And the most interesting stuff to come out of it isn't about Ashley Madison's clientele: It's about the company itself.
Ashley Madison had always sounded like a scam to me. The site claimed 37 million users, which, if true, would be an enormous percentage of America's married population. (That would be roughly half of all married people between the ages of 25 and 55.) (Which sounded incredibly implausible.)
And now we know that Ashley Madison's claims were implausible. An investigation of the site's user database found that there were 31 million profiles for men. However, only 20 million male "users" ever bothered to check their Ashley Madison message box even once, and only 11 million male users ever engaged the website's chat function, even once. A lot of people clearly just signed up out of curiosity.
The database also shows that there were 5.5 million women on Ashley Madison-but when reporter Annalee Newitz drilled down into their user profiles, an astonishing number of these women appear to be fakes-that is, dummy accounts created by the Ashley Madison staff to make it look like there was a pool of women looking for action. And by "astonishing," I mean that it looks like the number of real, live women using the site was somewhere between 1,500 and 10,000.
Which suggests that Ashley Madison might have been the greatest internet scam, ever. They suckered a couple million guys into paying a boatload of money to have affairs with women who were nothing more than sockpuppets of Ashley Madison employees.
The men did this even though the company basically warned them that this was going to happen in the terms of service agreement. Here's Newitz: "[T]here is a clause in the Ashley Madison terms of service that notes that 'some' people are using the site purely 'for entertainment' and that they are 'not seeking in person meetings with anyone they meet on the Service, but consider their communications with users and Members to be for their amusement.' The site stops short of saying these are fake people, but does admit that many profiles are for 'amusement only.'"
But the true genius of the scam is that, as a friend of mine pointed out, once the men got wise to what Ashley Madison was doing, they had no recourse. These were married men looking to have affairs. They were never going to risk public exposure by trying to go after the site for scamming them. It's the online dating equivalent of robbing a drug dealer.
Shortly after the first news of the hack broke, another friend quipped, "Well, the guys using Ashley Madison were looking to get screwed." They had no idea.