Prosecutors: Grindr Used by Robber to Target Gay Men

Prosecutors say the hookup app made it easy for a serial robber to target and steal from gay men.

For nearly three years, Derrick Patterson, 25, used Grindr, the gay hookup app, to lure more than 30 men into meetups that devolved into robberies, some with a stun gun or knife, prosecutors say. The Compton man was arrested by FBI special agents in April 2022.

In the criminal complaint against Patterson, the feds alleged more than 20 victims. (In his plea agreement, Patterson admitted to robbing five.) Applying a hate-crime enhancement because Patterson, who is gay, targeted gay men, U.S. District Judge John F. Walter sentenced him to more than nine years in federal prison last November—the same month that the New York Stock Exchange was lined with rainbow bunting and Pride flags in recognition of Grindr’s initial public stock offering, in which Grindr shares surged 200 percent.

Once the feds were through with Patterson, a criminal grand jury convened earlier this year by the L.A. County District Attorney’s office charged him with more than 30 additional counts of robbery, burglary, grand theft, and assault, with 27 new victims.

Los Angeles obtained copies of transcripts from the grand jury after they were unsealed last week. In one exchange with a rep from Grindr, deputy district attorney Richard Ceballos, the lead prosecutor on the case, accused the site of “aiding and abetting some of these crimes.”

Among the records from the grand jury is an email from a senior executive at Grindr responding to a West Hollywood man who had just reported a robbery at knifepoint by Patterson to the COO of the company. In the email, dated Dec. 28, 2021, Alice Hunsberger, then the Grindr’s senior director of customer experience, admits that law enforcement has asked the company to preserve any accounts linked to emails associated with the suspect in the attack. “There were at least seven more victims that we know of after these emails,” Ceballos said. The date of the first known robbery attributed to Patterson was November 3, 2019; the last was March 26, 2022. (LAPD issued its first search warrant in December, 2022; the L.A. Country Sheriff’s Department filed theirs on March 1, 2022.)

The robberies share a similar modus operandi.The perpetrator used Grindr to meet a target near his residence. Under the pretext of casual sex, he would enter the victim’s home, ask to borrow his phone, and have sex with him to distract while using the victim’s phone to transfer money from his banking and other accounts. The victim would later receive notifications that his passwords and banking information had been compromised.

If a victim realized something was wrong and protested, the perpetrator could astonish with his violence.

Police investigators testified that Grindr largely ignored subpoenas from both the LAPD and L.A. Sheriff’s Department. After Grindr allegedly failed to satisfy one grand jury request, Ceballos and his co-counsel, deputy district attorney Valerie Aenlle-Rocha, threatened to have the company held in criminal contempt. (Grindr hired the white-collar defense firm of Davis Wright Tremaine.)

“There are victims that would not have been victims if Grindr had responded to that first complaint or the second or the third, let’s say the fourth or fifth,” Aenlle-Rocha said at the grand jury. “Had they responded, then there would not be as many victims as there are.”

“Unfair and inaccurate” was how Patrick Lenihan, vice president and global head of communications for Grindr, described the characterization of the company as unresponsive. “We were not unresponsive to their information requests,” Lenihan said. “They just didn’t like our answers, which were that we don’t collect data of that nature and have nothing we can give you based on what you’re asking us for.”

“We responded in a timely fashion to each and every request from law enforcement and provided them with all of the data that we had germane to that request,” Lenihan added.

At the grand jury, Genevieve Garcia, a content moderation manager at Grindr, testified that the limited clues from law enforcement—for example, the username “11 inches”—made tracking down accounts linked to Patterson on a network of 27 million users like “searching for a needle in a haystack.” With an email address, username, or phone number, the search could have yielded more results, she said.

But prosecutors aren’t buying it.

Roughly a third of the alleged victims made complaints to Grindr, Ceballos told Los Angeles. “We have a number of victims” who indicated that they reported to Grindr that “they were targets in the case, either through e-mail or through the app itself, and I asked for those reports through the grand jury subpoena and didn’t get them,” he said.

All complaints to Grindr are handled by third-party contractors in either Honduras or the Philippines.

“They banned the defendant’s accounts, but he would then open a new one under a different email,” Ceballos said. “We went through eight or nine different accounts opened in a two-year period.”

Prosecutors say Patterson was able to continue using the app on the same two phones for roughly two years.

“Grindr could have blocked the suspect’s devices but they didn’t,” Ceballos said “Further, he was using many of the same photos and descriptors each time he created a new account so that a third grader could see it was the same person.” (Garcia testified that the scale of the app, which has users in 190 countries, makes it difficult to scan for photos and descriptors used in previously banned accounts.)

Lenihan, the VP and global head of communications for Grindr, countered that since Patterson stole his victims’ cell phones and then started using them with new accounts and burner email addresses, banning a device linked to him was no simple solution. “We could ban one device and then he just stole other devices.”

Patterson appears to have exposed a vulnerability inherent in the technology powering Grindr and similar apps.

“This isn’t unique to Grindr,” Lenihan said. “No dating app in the world has a solution for the M.O. that was used in this case. Ditching phones and getting burner email addresses? He exposed a vulnerability inherent in how all technology works.” 

One new development from the Patterson case is that as early as this summer, Grindr will begin storing user chat logs on its servers, Lenihan said.

The next pretrial hearing in the case of People vs. Derrick Patterson is scheduled for June 15.