Even with an app, you should watch your back - The Orca

Even with an app, you should watch your back


App-based services are eroding long-held cautions about strangers.

A Vancouver masseur who used an app called Soothe to find his clients has been charged with sexual assault. Alexander Varfolomeev, 33. Varfolomeev was arrested and later released on bail, with a court order prohibiting him from providing massage or physical therapy to the public.

According to the Soothe website therapists are vetted and background-checked – yet Varfolomeev passed, and even built a strong rating on the platform. The problem with apps like this one is they instill a false sense of security. Under no other circumstance would you let a stranger with a massage table and oils in hand into your home, but because the process is mediated through an online interface, it somehow feels safer.

There’s a meme floating around that paints the way our society has progressed in this regard: “1998: Don’t get into a car with strangers, 2008: Don’t meet people from the Internet alone, 2018: Order yourself a stranger from the Internet to get into a car with alone.”

Apps have changed so many areas of human interaction: quick hookups on Tinder; last-minute dog-sitters on Rover; a convenient and cost-effective ride through Uber (though unfortunately not in Vancouver yet!)

They mimic the confidence-building feature of a storefront. With distinguished branding and a chatbots for customer service they can convince us to jump into a car with a stranger or invite one into our apartment.

It begs the question, how rigorous are these “background check.” In most cities, Uber requires  a drivers’ abstract and a criminal record check. Soothe checks criminal records as well but somehow looked past the fact that Varfolomeev wasn’t registered with the College of Massage Therapists of British Columbia.

Of course, having a physical space with in-person interviews doesn’t prevent assaults from happening either. Just this month, masseur Amado Ramos, 61, who worked at Toe to Soul Relax Lounge in Vancouver’s west end, was charged with sexual assault. In this case, VPD Constable Steve Addison said, “We believe there may be additional victims who have not yet reported to police,” encouraging others to come forward.

At least with bricks and mortar businesses, it’s easier to rely on a gut feeling when something feels off. Dating before apps, it was easier to weed out the creeps before you were in their apartment. The common sense we were taught as kids in many ways cannot be applied to the online world and this also makes it more difficult from a business perspective to hold business owners to account.

If the standard vetting process is just a criminal record check, inevitably things will get missed. Soothe never promised everyone would be interviewed one-on-one, yet when they say “background check,” it sure sounds like it.

An incident like this definitely makes me think twice when it comes to outsourcing my common sense to an app.

Ada Slivinski is the Founder & Principal of Jam PR, a boutique agency focused on helping small businesses get big exposure. You can reach her at ada@jampr.co