Did you create a free profile on Match.com and get an email saying someone had "liked" you or sent you a message but you'd have to subscribe to learn more? Millions of people have. And, according to the Federal Trade Commission, nearly half a million went ahead and subscribed, only to find those supposed messages of romantic interest were actually fakes.
The FTC sued Match Group, which owns Match.com, Tinder, OKCupid, PlentyOfFish, and other dating sites claiming that Match.com "used fake love interest advertisements to trick hundreds of thousands of consumers into purchasing paid subscriptions."
According to an FTC statement, up to 30 percent of the users who register for Match.com every day are there to perpetrate scams. These include "romance scams, phishing schemes, fraudulent advertising, and extortion scams." That in itself should come as no surprise to anyone who's spent any time around the internet. But, the FTC lawsuit says, Match.com used those fake messages to lure in new subscribers.
If you've never used Match.com, it works like this: Creating a profile is free, but you need a paid subscription in order to view and respond to communications sent by other users of the site. When users create free profiles, and then other users either "like" those profiles or send messages within Match.com, the service sends automatically generated emails alerting people with free user profiles that someone on the service is interested in them.
"He just emailed you! You caught his eye and now he's expressed interest in you... Could he be the one? READ HIS EMAIL>>"
That's one example of such an email that the FTC included in its lawsuit. It says 499,691 people signed up after getting an email such as that one, only to find either a message from a scammer or a message that was no longer available because Match.com's fraud protection system has already caught and deactivated that account. In response to the lawsuit, Match issued a statement detailing the successes of its fraud fighting efforts. It says:
"We catch and neutralize 85 percent of potentially improper accounts in the first four hours, typically before they are even active on the site. And 96 percent of improper accounts within a day."
That may well be true. But the FTC claims Match.com only protects its paying users from these accounts, because messages from suspicious accounts are withheld from existing subscribers during a fraud review process, but the company still sends emails inviting non-paying users to subscribe based on those same suspicious messages. The complaint says:
"If, for example, a user Defendant flagged as potentially fraudulent had sent three emails to subscribers and three emails to nonsubscribers, Defendant would have withheld the three emails sent to subscribers until its fraud review was complete while allowing the three emails sent to nonsubscribers to reach their recipients."
Match's statement does not specifically address this accusation. And while it certainly may be true that 96 percent of improper accounts are are neutralized within 24 hours, that still leaves a lot of time for those accounts to send out messages or "likes."
The FTC lawsuit also accuses Match of other business practices it claims are illegal, such as offering a free six-month extension to users who fail to meet "someone special" during their initial six-month subscription period, but that there are a lot of special, time-sensitive requirements for getting that free extension buried deep in the fine print.
The FTC also alleges that Match fails to provide an easy way for consumers to unsubscribe and stop recurring charges, something that the FTC says violates the 2010 Restore Online Shoppers' Confidence Act (or ROSCA). That may be the most significant claim in the whole lawsuit because, the FTC notes, the court can award civil penalties of up to $42,530 for each instance of a ROSCA violation. The FTC doesn't say how many ROSCA violations it thinks Match is guilty of, and specifics on subscriber numbers are hard to come by. But one report suggests that Match Group overall has some 9 million subscribers, so it could add up to a lot of money.
Match says it will fight the lawsuit. "The FTC has misrepresented internal emails and relied on cherry-picked data to make outrageous claims and we intend to vigorously defend ourselves against these claims in court," its statement says. The company also says the terms of the the six-month guarantee were very clearly laid out in "easy-to-read bulleted paragraphs on a single web page," and that in any case, that guarantee program has ended. In response to the ROSCA accusation, it notes that during the period that the FTC investigated, "84 percent of subscribers who begin the online cancellation process successfully canceled their account within 24 hours." A smaller sampling suggests that an additional 4 percent are able to cancel after more than 24 hours of trying, Match's statement says. But if all that's true, it still doesn't explain why 12 percent of the people who want to stop using the service can't seem to do so.
If indeed this goes to trial, it will be interesting to see how it plays out. In the meanwhile, if you have a free Match.com profile and you get a message suggesting that you subscribe because someone is interested in you--as with all online services--think carefully before you punch in that credit card number.