A group of 18 online dating sites reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission that prohibits the use of phony profiles or charging users a monthly fee they did not agree to, the FTC said on Wednesday. The company running the sites was also accused of sending messages from the phony profiles to make new users think someone was interested in them.
It's the FTC first enforcement action against an online dating service and highlights the tricks employed to lure in customers. JDI Dating, the sites' owner, is required to pay $616,165 in refunds to consumers.
"JDI Dating used fake profiles to make people think they were hearing from real love interests and to trick them into upgrading to paid memberships," Jessica Rich, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement. "Adding insult to injury, users were charged automatically to renew their subscriptions -- often without their consent."
JDI Dating and William Mark Thomas, whom the action was taken against, run the 18 sites, which include cupidswand.com, flirtcrowd.com and findmelove.com.
Those who checked out the sites were offered a free membership, and once they created a profile, messages of interest that appeared to be from someone who lived nearby would show up. To respond to the messages, the user would have to upgrade to a membership plan that costs $10-$30 per month, the FTC said.
"The messages were almost always from fake, computer-generated profiles -- 'Virtual Cupids' -- created by the defendants, with photos and information designed to closely mimic the profiles of real people," the FTC said.
These phony profiles and messages, the agency alleged, convinced many users to sign up for paid subscriptions. Those who did, the FTC said, weren't told that the subscriptions would auto-renew until canceled.
The operators were accused of making misrepresentations to consumers and violating the Restore Online Shoppers' Confidence Act by not disclosing the terms of the subscriptions or allowing an easy way to stop the charges.
Under the settlement, in addition to the restitution, the site owners agreed to no longer use phony profiles without disclosing the practice and to be up-front regarding billing and cancellation policies.