En español | The U.S. government on Wednesday sued the owner of the popular online dating service Match.com, alleging it tricked hundreds of thousands of people into purchasing paid subscriptions to the dating service and put them at risk of fraud.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which filed the lawsuit, alleges that the Match Group duped people in that manner from 2013 until mid-2018.
Altogether the FTC complaint alleges five deceptive or unfair practices used to induce people looking for love to subscribe to Match.com and stay subscribed. Some of those practices were in place until mid-2019, the agency says.
In recent years as many as 25 to 30 percent of Match.com members who registered each day were using the dating service to perpetuate romance scams, extortion scams — or what is sometimes “sextortion” — and other wrongs, the FTC alleges.
What is sextortion?
Sextortion happens when scam artists induce a person to send compromising photos or videos and then use the images to extort money from the victim by threatening to send the images to the victim's friends or family, the suit says.
In response, the company in a statement called the allegations “completely meritless” and pledged it would vigorously defend itself in court. The company acknowledged the FTC had raised potential claims relating to Match.com's marketing, chargeback and online cancellation policies. It said the FTC offered last November to resolve the potential claims if Match Group paid $60 million and agreed to change some of its business practices. But no agreement was reached.
Match.com operates in the U.S. and 24 other countries, the suit says. Its parent company has 45 dating services, including Tinder, OkCupid and Plenty of Fish, in more than 40 languages.
Fewer services given non-subscribers
People looking for love on Match.com fall into two categories: Non-subscribers may create an online profile and communicate using free, limited services. Subscribers who pay are given a broader range of services. At the heart of the litigation is Match.com's former practice of sending fake love-interest ads to non-subscribers.
"We believe that Match.com conned people into paying for subscriptions via messages the company knew were from scammers,” says Andrew Smith, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Online dating services shouldn't be using romance scammers as a way to fatten their bottom line.”
Specifically, when non-subscribers received likes, favorites, emails and instant messages on Match.com generally they were emailed ads encouraging them to subscribe so they could view the identity of the sender or the communication they received.
An example of a notification to a non-subscriber: “He just emailed you! You caught his eye and now he's expressed interest in you … Could he be the one?"
But potential subscribers were unaware that in many instances the communication was from people who were not interested in dating but instead were seeking to perpetuate scams.
Between 2013 and mid-2018, consumers considering buying a Match.com subscription were generally not aware of the prevalence of fraudsters using the service, the FTC says.
The FTC calls the Match Group the top online dating provider in the U.S. and says it controls about with 25 percent of the market, two times its closest competitor.
The consumer protection agency also alleges that the firm offered false promises of guarantees, failed to provide services to customers who unsuccessfully disputed charges and made it difficult for people to cancel subscriptions.
The Match Group, in its statement, says: “Fraud isn't good for business. That's why we fight it.” It says it catches and neutralizes 96 percent of improper accounts within a day.
In a statement to AARP earlier this year in connection with a romance fraud story published on aarp.org, the Match Group said it has a dedicated team and sophisticated technology that patrols for fraud. The company reviews every member profile and blocks IP addresses from high-alert countries stolen credit card numbers and “red-flag language” in profiles, the statement said.
The FTC, in this week's lawsuit, says victims of romance scams lose more than money. Perpetrators “manipulate their victims to exploit their trust and goodwill” and the crimes “cause significant emotional distress and injury to consumers beyond monetary losses."
The civil lawsuit was filed in Dallas, where the dominant online-dating service provider in the U.S. is based.