Online dating site Match.com duped people into paying for subscriptions by sending them email ads that promoted fraudulent profiles, the Federal Trade Commission alleged in a lawsuit filed Wednesday.
“We believe that Match.com conned people into paying for subscriptions via messages the company knew were from scammers,” Andrew Smith, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, stated Wednesday.
Match.com, owned by IAC's Match Group, also allegedly exposed some users to the risk of fraud by allowing them to be contacted by suspected scammers, the FTC says.
The agency alleges in its complaint that between 2013 and mid-2018, 25% to 30% of people who registered at Match.com were fraudsters who used the service for “romance scams,” phishing, promoting illegal products and blackmail (which involved convincing people to send videos or photos, then threatening to send them to people's friends or families).
IAC's Match Group says: “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.”
The company adds that the FTC is “wildly overstating the impact of fraudulent accounts” and “mischaracterizing what is encompassed in 'fraudulent'."
“The vast majority of the users that the FTC characterizes as 'fraudulent' are not romance scams or similar types of fraudsters, but spam, bots, and other users attempting to use the service for their own commercial purposes," Match says.
The agency's complaint, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Dallas, sets out several deceptive practices allegedly used by Match.com to acquire or retain paying subscribers.
Among others, the company allegedly sent deceptive email ads to people who had used the site, but hadn't yet signed up for paid subscriptions. Those emails told recipients that they had caught the attention of other members, and invited the recipients to purchase subscriptions in order to communicate with the members referenced in the ads.
Often, the profiles referenced in the ads had already been flagged for potential fraud, according to the FTC.
Some ad recipients who purchased Match.com subscriptions in order to learn about messages they supposedly received were then exposed to scammers, according to the FTC. In other situations, the new subscribers were told that the messages were unavailable.
The outcome “depends upon whether consumers subscribe to Match.com before or after defendant completes its fraud review process,” the FTC alleges. “If the consumer subscribes before the review is completed, the consumer receives the communication that was sent; if defendant has already completed its review process and deleted the account as fraudulent before the consumer subscribes, the consumer will receive a notification that the profile is 'unavailable'."
The FTC adds that Match.com's analysis found that between June 2016 and May 2018, almost 500,000 people purchased subscriptions within 24 hours of receiving an ad that promoted a fraudulent profile.
The agency also alleges that Match.com tricked people into subscribing by promising them a free six-month membership if they didn't "meet someone special," but failing to make clear that people had to fulfill additional requirements to qualify for the free membership. Among other things, people had to message five different subscribers per month, and post a public profile with a Match-approved photo.
Match.com also allegedly violated the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act by failing to give people an easy way to cancel their memberships, which were renewed automatically.
The company says it takes steps to combat fraud on its site. “We catch and neutralize 85% of potentially improper accounts in the first four hours, typically before they are even active on the site, and 96% of improper accounts within a day,” Match says.
Match Group adds that the FTC voted in August to refer the matter to the Department of Justice, which "opted not to pursue the civil case and referred it back to the FTC."