FTC to Dating Site: No More Sales Come-Ons from Flirty Bots

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Looking for love in all the wrong places can take on a whole new set of complications when you're doing it online: A company called JDI Dating has allegedly been creating convincing-but-fake computer profiles which it used to entice people into signing up for paid memberships to its dating sites, and then charged those customers recurring monthly fees without their consent -- sometimes even after they cancelled.

But the Federal Trade Commission, protector of romance-seekers everywhere, called foul, and charged JDI with a host of regulatory violations -- the first time the agency had ever taken legal action against an online dating service. And Wednesday, the FTC announced a settlement with the England-based company.

Under a consent decree, JDI Dating has agreed to permanently end its practice of sending messages from its own fake users to real ones. Consumers who do purchase memberships will be told clearly about the recurring nature of the fees, and have a simple way to quit should they choose to. And, the company will fork over a $616,165 fine.

The owner of such sites as cupidswand.com, flirtcrowd.com and findmelove.com reportedly allowed consumers to set up free dating profiles with personal information and photos. Users with those free accounts would receive messages from people who appeared to be nearby. But only someone with a paid membership could reply to messages.

But the messages those free account-holders received "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," according to the FTC. The only indication that such profiles didn't belong to genuine members was a vanishingly small "VC" icon. And the only explanation of what that tiny icon meant was "buried in a terms and conditions page," according to the FTC.

People would sign up for accounts that ranged from $10 to $30 a month, only to be disappointed when the "person" whose interest had encouraged them to join suddenly evaporated.

Fake profiles on dating sites are nothing new. One site, SeekingArrangement.com, told the New York Daily News that it has to remove 200 profiles a day from scammers looking to trick others out of money.

Then there's "catfishing," in which people set up fake accounts to trick someone in particular. A famous example was when Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o was duped by a nonexistent girlfriend, as the New York Times reported. Another was when "Criminal Minds" actor Thomas Gibson was duped by a catfisher, who got the married star to send her a video that then went up on the Web, as TMZ reported.

Creating fake profiles to lure consumers into paying for dating site memberships is just the latest twist on the concept. So remember, if the relationship doesn't pan out: It's not you, it's bot number 73927.
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