Ashley Madison created thousands of fake profiles to get more money from its users

At least 71.618 fake profiles of the Canada-based online dating service Ashley Madison were created from e-mail addresses linked to the company owning the service between 2011 and 2015. 89% of those profiles correspond to women. These accounts are associated to the domains ALMLABS.COM, AVIDLIFEMEDIA.COM y ASHLEYMADISON.COM, registered by Avid Life Media, the company based in Canada that owns Ashley Madison.

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In Spain there are 1,899 profiles associated to e-mail accounts from this domain. 93% of them are female profiles. 40% were created in one go in May 2013. That summer, the company also broadcast ads on TV. Ashley Madison’s income went from €2,500 in the first six months of 2013 to €50,000 in the last six months, according to our analysis of the leaked transactions.

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EL ESPAÑOL’s Data Team has drawn up a detailed analysis of the first leak of 10GB of data, uncovered by The Impact Team. The content of the database contains around 37 million entries with personal user information and business transactions.

EL ESPAÑOL has decided not publish the nicknames, credit card details or personal data of any of the real users of the Canadian company out of respect for their privacy.

An Italian in Móstoles

Few cases better reflect Ashley Madison’s false identity strategy than that of the user identified on the website with the nickname ‘ella2912353’. According to the data set leaked by The Impact Team, this account was created with the e-mail address ‘host@almlabs.com’. The profile, which is still active, claims to be that of a 44-year old woman living in Móstoles (Madrid). But the images of the user are really photos of the Italian soloist Cristina Scabbia, who sings with the band Lacuna Coil, and can be easily found online. There are 15,739 profiles on Ashley Madison associated to the same e-mail address.

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Other profiles associated to this domain include a nickname together with a false user. The profile labelled “Linda084”, for example, is linked to the e-mail address “stella+linda084@almlabs.com”. Up to 4.921 profiles that use these aliases are linked to just 81 nicknames. This behaviour follows a regular pattern for managing many e-mail accounts in a simple manner. On receiving a message, the recipient very quickly identifies the source or the profile from which he is receiving the messages. The profiles associated to that type of e-mail address with an alias are no longer active but the entries have not been deleted from the database, and nor have the user accounts who paid for the service.

According to a report on Canadian TV, a former employee of Ashley Madison called Doriana Silva sued the company in 2014 alleging wrist and forearm damage after having to create more than 1,000 female profiles in 2011. The company counter-sued Silva in the same year for revealing corporate information when she presented the profiles she had created as proof. Ashley Madison is claiming $100,000 in damages, arguing those profiles are “quality assurance” to check the “consistency and reliability” of the site before launching the Brazilian version in 2011.

In the database leaked by The Impact Team, there are nine profiles linked to the e-mail address ‘doriana.silva@avidlifemedia.com’ and two linked to ‘doriana@almlabs.com’: one (created in March 2011), for a 65-year old man who lives in Toronto and the other (created in June of the same year), for a 45-year old woman living in Melbourne.

Ashley Madison does not verify user e-mail addresses when they register for the site, so the appearance of an e-mail in the database does not mean the person who owns the account joined of his or her own account.

Ashley Madison’s terms and conditions do include a clause that specifies they may create false profiles to encourage user participation. In those false profiles, though, at no point is it mentioned that they were created to that end. In this way, registered users cannot know if contacts they make on the site or the messages they receive are from fictitious accounts.

As soon as he creates an account on Ashley Madison, a man who expresses a preference for women begins to get messages from female profiles of doubtful origin, at the rate of approximately one a week, according to our analysis. To be able to interact with the women who appear in those profiles and even to read one of their messages, the man must pay, using a payment system to purchase credits that can be exchanged for messages. There are three packages: the €273,90 version includes 1,000 credits, the €163,90 version 500 credits and the cheapest version at €53,90 gets 100 credits.

In March 2015, Ashley Madison was accused of sending messages to its paying users via false profiles. The company’s CEO, Noel Biderman, denied the accusations.

4,400 Paying Users

In Spain, there are 4,400 e-mail addresses linked to business transactions that were made on the website between 2008 and June 2015. Fewer than 100 of these accounts are identified as women.

Ashley Madison generated around €660,000 income from accounts linked to Spain. The company made more than 169 million dollars between 2011 and 2014 worldwide.

The profile that spent most money on Ashley Madison from Spain corresponds to a 44-year old man purchasing from Barcelona. He spent more than €5,000 across 17 payments between February and November 2014. He is not the only one. At least 27 accounts linked to Spain spent more than €1,000 in total. They are all identified as men on the website.

Women As Advertising

Despite Ashley Madison’s ad campaigns, largely oriented towards a female audience, analysis of the leaked database reveals that only 7.4% of profiles identified as women. In Spain, the percentage is even lower: 4.8%.

In the summer of 2011, Ashley Madison was a big story thanks to ad campaigns that included photos of King Juan Carlos, Prince Charles and Bill Clinton. A few months later, in February 2012, they did another campaign with a photo of Queen Sofía. Despite the media attention, the number of registered users and turnover did not increase in line with coverage of their campaigns.

The main website uses women as bait to attract customers. Most of the six profiles (between four and six) suggested to a user on visiting Ashley Madison are women. If the sample were more representative, only one woman should appear, and then only from time to time.

Ashley Madison declined to comment either on the data leak or on how its business works when contacted by EL ESPAÑOL.

Traducción: Matthew Bennett