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Looking for love (perhaps even in all the wrong places) along with 40 million other Americans? Eager to finally find the "right one"? Lovelorn romantics best be wary and wise in whom to trust when it comes to Internet dating, says the federal government.

Those hoping to gain Cupid's favor apparently can add the popular Match dating service to their list of concerns in our increasingly deceptive society.

The Federal Trade Commission has filed suit in U.S. District Court against Dallas-based Match Group, alleging the company has been involved in deceptive advertising practices that prey on those seeking relationships.

Basically, the FTC accuses Match, which owns dating sites such as Match.com, OKCupid and Tinder, of using fake love-interest messages to trick customers.

"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, said in a press release. "Online dating services obviously shouldn't be using romance scammers as a way to fatten their bottom line."

That's just not right, my friends.

The Dallas Morning News reports the federal agency alleges the company offered scammers' enticing fake ads such as, "He just e-mailed you. Could he be the one?" to potential subscription customers.

Management at Match denies it's done anything wrong, but the complaint contends Match's own analysis between June 2016 and May 2018 revealed nearly half a million people purchased subscriptions within one day of receiving such fraudulent messages.

Match permits users to create Match.com profiles at no charge. But then it prohibits users from responding to messages without upgrading to a paid subscription, according to the FTC complaint.

I imagine this much like a red and white bobber frantically bouncing up and down on the lake before sinking beneath the surface, but you have to pay for a Match subscription to see what's on the hook (and it's only you).

"Specifically, when nonsubscribers with free accounts received likes, favorites, emails, and instant messages on Match.com, they also received emailed ads from Match encouraging them to subscribe to Match.com to view the identity of the sender and the content of the communication," the FTC complaint says. This encouraged many hopeful consumers to purchase subscriptions.

The FTC says problems arose when consumers came into contact with the scammer if they subscribed before Match completed its fraud review process. If Match ultimately deleted the account as fraudulent before the consumer subscribed, the consumer received notification that the profile was "unavailable." The consumer at that point was left with a paid Match subscription as a result of the false advertisement.

Match executives countered by saying they would fight the allegations in a courtroom and claimed the feds has misrepresented internal company emails and used "cherry-picked data to make outrageous claims."

While that may well be the legal finding when all the dust clears, it nonetheless occurs to me the truth should be obvious in the data itself. Were such bogus enticements sent out to solicit memberships? If so, to how many and when? What were the results, and did the company benefit financially from the process?

As a juror I'd certainly find it beyond reason to believe scamming companies would send out written enticements to solicit business for Match by accident. How many of the come-ons were sent over the years, and by whom?

There were additional FTC accusations of duping subscribers, according to Morning News reporter Dom DiFurio. Match also employed difficult to understand disclosures. The news account said the dating site promised subscribers a six-month membership at no charge if they failed to meet "the one" without disclosing the numerous requirements to be eligible for the deal.

And the FTC says there was even more that prompted its lawsuit, including the failure to provide subscribers a simple way of stopping recurring fees, claiming Match's own employees described the process for canceling the service as "hard to find, tedious, and confusing."

That reminds me of that classic line from 1990 film, Godfather III, that says just when you thought you were out, they dragged you back in.

It's not the first time the folks at Match have been accused of fraud concerning its dating platforms, DiFurio writes, although the company insists the fraud rate for email communication on its site is no more than 1 percent.

Well, perhaps that's the case. Yet I have to say something appears definitely amiss considering no less than the FTC believes it can prove otherwise in a courtroom.

So for those of us who see the possibility of true love as being patient, kind and forgiving, the coming months should reveal whether this pay-to-play approach over the Internet has fostered what the FTC characterizes as fraudulent, or simply a business intent on uniting lonely, searching hearts (for a profit, of course).

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

Web only on 10/05/2019

Print Headline: MASTERSON ONLINE: Gullible romantics beware

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