SOCIETY

Desperately seeking suckers

Lawsuits against two U.S. Web dating services allege that singles in search of love may have a new worry: date fraud

CATHY GULLI December 19 2005
SOCIETY

Desperately seeking suckers

Lawsuits against two U.S. Web dating services allege that singles in search of love may have a new worry: date fraud

CATHY GULLI December 19 2005

Desperately seeking suckers

SOCIETY

Lawsuits against two U.S. Web dating services allege that singles in search of love may have a new worry: date fraud

CATHY GULLI

Last month, two unrelated federal lawsuits were filed in the United States against online dating service providers www.match.com and Yahoo Personals. They allege that the companies defrauded clients to entice them into continuing to use the services. Matthew Evans, a thirtysomething professional from Orange County, Calif., accuses www.match.com of sending him fake romantic emails to goad him into subscription renewal. He alleges that employees read his emails and tailored responses to invent the “perfect match.” Worse yet, Evans says the company hired a beautiful woman named Autumn Marzee to go on a date with him. The lawsuit claims that www.match.com “employs ‘date bait’ teams to hoodwink subscribers,” and that these staffers fake dates up to 100 times a month.

Meanwhile, Robert Anthony of Broward County, Fla., alleges that Yahoo Personals posted fictitious profiles online to inflate its pool of attractive, eligible singles.

More than once, when his subscription was expiring, Anthony says he received “new match” messages. After several failed attempts at meeting potential matches, he became suspicious. Anthony accuses Yahoo Personals of posting the same photo of an available woman

He accuses Match.com of hiring ‘date bait’ teams who fake up to 100 dates a month

under different names in various cities. All this “to generate interest, public trust and give the site a much more attractive and functional appearance,” states the lawsuit.

While these cases are happening in the U.S., the consequences of the allegations extend beyond its borders. Both www.match.com and Yahoo Personals are Internet-based providers serving singles around the world. One of the biggest markets: Canada. “We’re a global site,” says Kathleen Roldan, spokes-

person for www.match.com. “We have a lot of Canadian members, and a lot of Canadian success stories.”

Online dating services started up in the late 1990s; since then they have become an increasingly mainstream way of finding romantic matches. The stigma attached to traditional dating agencies and personal ads has largely spared Web matchmaking, and hundreds of thousands of singles have turned to the Internet for dates. “The Internet is a viable way to find that handsome prince or princess,” says Vancouver sex and relation-

ship therapist Dr. Pega Ren. But accusations of fraud, among other charges, may jeopardize the love-in. And the damage could spread from www.match.com and Yahoo Personals to the dozens of other online dating companies playing Cupid.

For their part, both www.match.com and Yahoo Personals fervently deny the charges. “We can’t comment on pending litigation,” states Rochelle Adams, a spokesperson for Yahoo Personals. But she says her company “continues its dedication to providing the best online dating experience with a safe, fun environment.” In its defence, www. match.com has acquired a signed affidavit from Autumn Marzee, the woman it allegedly hired, swearing she was not an employee of the company. “The lawsuit is completely baseless,” asserts Roldan.

There are records of complaints filed against dating agencies in Canada, too. The Ontario Consumer Services Bureau, for instance, says that six complaints of misrepresentation have been reported since January. It won’t disclose details, but spokesperson Jason Wesley says the cases involve disparities between consumers’ expectations and the services provided. Fraud wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility. And complaints about traditional dating agencies hiring “professional daters” have crossed the desk of Anne Hart, dispute-resolution supervisor of the midwestern and central Ontario Better Business Bureau. She says it’s safe to assume it could happen with dating websites, too. “I think it might be more prominent. Online is very much more lax.”

If the allegations levelled by Evans and Anthony prove true, online dating companies across the Internet could see growth drop further from already waning levels of around 10 per cent, compared with levels as high as 100 per cent five years ago. For now, though, Ren remains a hopeful romantic on her clients’ behalf. “Let’s look at it from another angle. If it’s true, then the folks who are being hired to go out with the [singles] are going to make sure it’s a good date, right? So then you get a practice date.” M

AUSTRIA: RUDOLF WITH YOUR BUM SO BRIGHT

A year after the last spate of complaints from Austrians who were smacked on the backside by strangers dressed as devils, police have officially approved the Christmas tradition. Residents around the country dress either as Santa and distribute candy to people deemed good, or as devils and give beatings to the “bad.” A Vienna police spokesman said that provided the “beatings” are not truly injurious, encountering a devil is no cause to call authorities.