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Match.com sued by subscribers who say they were snookered

February 8, 2011

By Cheryl Wetzstein

Hell hath no fury like lonely hearts who think they've been bamboozled by an online dating service, and five of them are taking Match.com to court to settle the score.

But the nation's leading online dating service is in no mood to be falsely accused.

"The claims have no merit, and Match will defend the lawsuit vigorously. Similar claims were dismissed by a federal judge in Dallas last fall," a Match.com spokesman told The Washington Times.

In a quarrel that looks out of step in this rosy-red Valentine's Day season, three men and two women have filed a class-action complaint in U.S. District Court in Dallas, saying Match.com's subscription-based service "is little more than a scheme to induce members of the public to join (and pay for) Match's website, based on false pretenses."

Match.com says it has millions of "active" subscribers, but "well over half" of the profiles are inactive or fake, contends lawyer Jeffrey Norton of Harwood Feffer LLP in New York, who helped file the lawsuit Dec. 30

The lawsuit is based on the plaintiffs' experiences, plus testimony from former employees and researchers who have "pulled tremendous amounts of 'proof' right off the site," Mr. Norton said.

"People are vulnerable," he said. "They are looking for love, and I've heard some terrible stories, where people lost a lot of money on these scams.

Subscription rates can range from $34.99 a month to more than $100 for a six-month subscription.

But sources familiar with Match.com and the online dating industry say the lawsuit is what's unbelievable.

Match.com is a profitable company, so it's a "natural target" for a lawsuit, said Mark Brooks, who runs the Online Personals Watch blog.

Scammers hit every online dating site, so big companies such as Match.com have developed ways of identifying and purging the phony entries, said Mr. Brooks. About two-thirds of the Match.com work force are customer-service representatives, he said, and while these employees can recognize and remove phony images, "it's a constant battle."

Other industry sources, who asked not to be identified, said dating sites always have inactive profiles.

Subscribers can meet a lot of people at first and then "take a break" while they are dating, sometimes for 30 or 60 days, said one woman who has been associated with the industry for years.

People usually — but not always — hide their profiles during these interludes, she said. But they definitely re-engage the service when they want to be discovered again.

Another reason for no responses or inactive accounts is that a person is simply not interested in the contact, the industry insider added. "That's just part of dating."

The five plaintiffs — David Robinson of Florida, Allen Stone of New York, Nancy Malsom of Iowa, Claire Kilcoyne of Washington and Michael Bourne of Tennessee — are seeking refunds of their membership fees, compensatory damages and an injunction to end the practices.

The plaintiffs were not available to discuss the case with The Times, but other Match.com users who are following the lawsuit were ready to talk.

"I am lonely, and [Match.com] took advantage of that, and I am furious with them," said Cleveland divorcee Cindy Kuick, 46.

Ms. Kuick said she signed up for a free trial with Match.com. She couldn't find anyone interesting and was not planning to subscribe.

Then, "all of a sudden, these really nice-looking guys who make $100,000 and up and were the right age started 'winking' at me and e-mailing me," said Ms. Kuick. The only way to connect with these men was to subscribe, which she did. But when she tried to reply to them, "their profiles were gone."

Over the next few months, Ms. Kuick "winked" at many profiles, only to find they were inactive, while men who "winked" at her were "way too old," "way too young" or "low quality, to put it politely," she said. When she complained to Match.com, the customer-service representative "hung up on me," said Ms. Kuick, who is now active on the rival eHarmony online dating service.

Anne Devney, a 50-something from Seattle, said she is done with online dating after her Match.com experience. "I would much rather run through hell with gasoline on my shorts," she said.

One of the "scammy guys" she met on Match.com said he was a widower with a child. Three weeks later, he asked Ms. Devney for money because he "somehow ended up in Africa," his child became "desperately ill" and the hospital wouldn't accept his check or credit card. "I do credit collections for a living," Ms. Devney said when asked why she didn't fall for the ruse.

She added that another potential match from Texas proved to be a fake, too. "I spent six bucks of my own money investigating the guy, but he doesn't live in Texas, and there's no record of this business that he's supposedly been in for 20 years," said Ms. Devney, adding that she supports the lawsuit because "I would like my $50 back."

Knoxville lawyer John Neal, 56, is an active member of Match.com, but he too has had many exasperating experiences with it.

"There's a huge amount of scams on there" and "spectacularly fraudulent" profiles, especially from women who appear to be based in Africa and Russia, he said. "I've complained and complained and complained to Match," but received only a form letter that doesn't address the issues — plus there's no evidence that the scammers are taken off the site, he said.

As an example, Mr. Neal sent The Times an active profile of a North Carolina woman who said she spoke English and had a "graduate degree."

"I consider myself an ecxellent spelller of wordes," the woman wrote. "I is quite the good at grammar as well … ."

Mr. Neal thinks the class-action lawsuit has merit because its complaints are "dead-on." After all the time and money he has spent on Match.com, he added, "I can count on one hand" the number of genuinely serious women he has met on the site.

Mr. Brooks and others who know Match.com and the industry are confident that poor experiences like these are "the exception, not the rule."

Untold thousands of people are dating and finding long-term partners through online services, said one insider, noting that last year, Match.com and Chadwick Martin Bailey Behavioral Studies released a study of 11,000 people that found that 17 percent of those who married in the past three years had met their spouses via online dating sites.

The Better Business Bureau reported that in 2009, the service received 2,660 complaints about dating services, compared with 126 in 2004.

Meanwhile, Mr. Brooks' advice to online daters is simple: "Buyer beware. Be careful of 'too good to be true.'"