The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness used fake romantic prospects to dupe users into subscribing, the FTC alleges

(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

The emails reeled in the lovelorn with tantalizing messages such as, “You caught his eye and now he’s expressed interest in you. … Could he be the one?” They were enough to convince hundreds of thousands of people to sign up for paid subscriptions to

Yet authorities allege that the interest came not from secret admirers but from accounts the company had already flagged as potentially fraudulent. The Federal Trade Commission is now suing the matchmaking giant, claiming in a complaint filed Wednesday that it had used the phony love-interest ads to trick people into purchasing its services.

“We believe that 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 news release. “Online dating services obviously shouldn’t be using romance scammers as a way to fatten their bottom line.”

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Dating sites and apps are often used to perpetuate fraud, federal officials said, with scammers posing as suitors. Between 2015 and 2017, the FTC said in its complaint, consumers reported losing an estimated $884 million to romance scams. That figure is probably low, since many victims choose not to report such fraud, perhaps out of embarrassment. And there are costs beyond the financial: The FTC said the crimes “cause significant emotional distress” because they exploit trust and goodwill.

In the world of online dating, Match is a heavy hitter. It was founded in 1993, before most Americans had Internet access, as Business Insider noted in a story on the company’s founder and chief executive. Today, the FTC says, Match Group controls about 25 percent of the online dating market and owns around 45 dating services, among them familiar names like Tinder, Hinge, OkCupid and Plenty of Fish.

The Dallas-based company on Wednesday criticized the FTC’s lawsuit as making “completely meritless allegations supported by consciously misleading figures.” In a response published on its website, Match said it is “relentless” in shutting down malicious accounts.

Romance scams cost Americans $143 million last year, FTC 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 statement said. allows anyone to sign up for an account and browse profiles free of charge. But a paid subscription is required to view communications from other users, such as “likes,” “favorites,” emails or instant messages. When a nonsubscriber gets an automatically generated email telling them they’ve attracted interest, they’ll have to sign up to see. Many are inclined to do just that. Between June 2016 and May 2018, almost 500,000 subscriptions were purchased within 24 hours of getting an email “touting a fraudulent communication,” the FTC’s complaint said.

When a new subscriber tried to communicate with the person who had supposedly expressed interest, they either gained access to the fraudulent communication — exposing them to fraud — or were notified the person’s profile was “unavailable.” In many cases, the FTC said, Match did not notify the consumer that the account was believed to be fraudulent.

In a fact sheet, the company said the majority of users the FTC described as fraudulent are not romance scammers but “spam, bots, and other users attempting to use the service for their own commercial purposes.” In addition, it eliminated instant messages and “favorites” from the site. Email, which has a fraud rate of less than 1 percent, is now the main form of communication, the company said.

The FTC also took issue with Match’s alleged failure to disclose the requirements of its guaranteed free subscriptions for those who don’t find “someone special” and its “confusing and cumbersome” cancellation process.

Match said that in November the FTC offered to resolve the dispute with a $60 million settlement and a consent decree requiring changes in the company’s practices. The two sides failed to reach a resolution, prompting the lawsuit. An FTC spokeswoman said Thursday she had no comment on those claims.

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