The Federal Trade Commission has forced a settlement with an online dating company it accuses of creating phony profiles on 18 dating sites, sending messages via the fake accounts and charging users recurring monthly fees for responding to the fabricated content.
The FTC reached a settlement of $616,165 after filing a complaint against William Mark Thomas and his JDI Dating company, a U.K. organization. Along with with the fine, Thomas and JDI Dating have been ordered to put an end to the deceptive business practices.
"JDI Dating used fake profiles to make people think they were hearing from real love interests and to trick them into upgrading to paid memberships," said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "Adding insult to injury, users were charged automatically to renew their subscriptions - often without their consent."
Anyone could join the dating sites and create profiles at no cost, but users would have to subscribe to one of the membership tiers to view and respond to messages from other users, according to the FTC's complaint. As soon as new users joined one of the sites, the email accounts would begin receiving fabricated messages, according to the FTC.
The FTC's complaint alleges the websites duped nonpaying members into subscribing to the company's services by sending them notifications of messages and profile visits by "virtual cupids," fabricated accounts. The phony accounts were stamped with a "VC logo" on the profile page, a "v" encircled by a "c," but the FTC said the logos were often unavailable until a free user paid for the ability to read messages sent from other accounts on the dating sites.
"Even consumers who locate the VC logo are unlikely to attach any significance to it," states the complaint. "Defendants do not provide an explanation of the VC logo except on their terms and conditions page. Even there, Defendants do not display the actual VC logo used to distinguish the communications of Virtual Cupids from those of actual users."
On top of paying to see phony messages and finding out that they were fake, users of the dating sites would also be automatically signed up for renewals of their subscriptions. The FTC says there is nothing on the website's sign-up pages that indicate subscriptions will be renewed automatically.
The FTC often takes on cases it believes are in the interest of the general public. The FTC recently filed a complaint against AT&T, alleging that the wireless carrier throttled the data speeds of consumers who subscribed to its unlimited data plans.