State Office of Consumer Affairs Cautions Online Daters
BOSTON – February 13, 2014 – With romance on everyone’s mind on Valentine’s Day, the state Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation (OCABR) cautions consumers to carefully read online dating website terms and conditions and privacy policies to ensure they understand their rights.
Last month, OCABR staff conducted a survey that examined 10 online dating services for fees, cancellation policies, contract terms and conditions, and any guarantees offered. Researchers visited each service’s website to try and obtain useful information for consumers.
“Consumers can spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars on these dating websites,” said Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation Undersecretary Barbara Anthony. “These sites claim they are the best one for you, but how can a consumer decide which service to use if they can’t even compare costs? Consumers need to be able to make informed choices without putting their personal information into dozens of databases. Membership prices and privacy disclosures should be available right up front.”
Researchers found it difficult to find detailed information about membership options from the majority of the websites surveyed. Several of the dating sites – including Chemistry, Christian Mingle, Zoosk, and Our Time – did not have price information available unless consumers signed-up and logged-in using their personal information. Other sites had this information available only in the “Terms and Conditions” pages, accessible by links at the bottom of the page in fine print. Fees that could be determined ranged from a low of $74.95 for six months to a high of $155.40 for a full year. There were also one month and three month subscriptions offered that ranged from $10.95 for one month to $79.99 for three months.
Each site had multiple subscription options, with lower per-month payments available for longer contracts. Five of the 10 sites offered one, three, or six month subscriptions. eHarmony offers up to a 24 month subscription, but requires either a lump sum payment at sign-up or payments split evenly among the first three months. Below is information regarding fees found in the survey:
- 1 month subscriptions ranged from $23.99 to $49.99;
- 3 month subscriptions ranged from $56.97 to $80.97;
- 6 month subscriptions ranged from $71.94 to $129.99.
Nine of the 10 dating services surveyed did not offer refunds if the consumer cancelled his membership, regardless of whether the contract term was month-to-month or a multi-month subscription. This refund information was not prominently displayed on these nine websites. eHarmony offered a refund if the consumer cancelled the “Singles Service” within three days of signing-up, but did not offer a refund on any other products purchased at the same time. Notably, in a phone call to True Beginnings, the customer service representative advised one researcher that the company would not be able to send a copy of the cancellation policy to the consumer unless she signed-up as a member.
There are several different types of dating services available online, and it is important for consumers to consider the differences. Traditional online dating websites – like eHarmony and Match.com – offer profile-browsing services, where users create and manage a profile of their preferences and are able to search through other profiles based on location, age, or other demographics. Many of these profile-browsing sites offer suggested matches based on personality tests and patented algorithms. Matchmaking services differ significantly from this traditional model, as they do not offer a sea of profiles through which to browse in their online platform. Instead, matchmaking services maintain internal databases and attempt to match two consumers based on the intuition of the company’s professional matchmaking staff, often requiring in-person consultations.
OCABR staff took a look at two matchmaking sites: eLove and Mature Singles Only. On both sites, there was no information about price, fees, membership, or contracts available. At the time the survey was conducted, neither site had a phone number listed for consumers to inquire about more information. Since the time of the survey, eLove has added a phone number to their website. On both sites, the consumer must input his information – name, age, dating preference, occupation, zip code, and contact information – in order to receive a call back from a matchmaker, though there is no option to select when it would be best to receive that call. OCABR staff did not receive a call back from either matchmaking service.
The most alarming finding from this survey is how consumers’ personal information is being used. Companies are including disclaimers in their privacy policies that by merely using the site, consumers lose the rights to the data they have shared. For example, a consumer who uses Christian Mingle forfeits all rights to his profile content and agrees to let the company track the websites visited using cookies placed on the individual’s computer. Upon further examination, the researcher found out that she could turn off the cookies, but consumers who are less tech-savvy may never know they are being followed by these companies.
To view the full survey, click here .
OCABR offers the following tips for consumers who are interested in signing up for an online dating or other matchmaking service:
- Shop around. Before providing any personal information to any one company, shop around to find the best price for the service you are seeking. Read each company’s claims and guarantees, and make sure you know what you are signing up for. Be cautious about providing personal information before you know the price of the service.
- Beware of free trials that require credit card information. Most free trials that require you to input credit card or other payment information will automatically collect that payment once the trial has expired. Make sure you know exactly when the trial expires and when you will be charged.
- Make sure you know how to cancel a membership. Be sure you have read and understand the company’s cancellation policy. Keep a file with a phone number and e-mail address for the dating service so you can get in touch with a customer service representative. Note that you may not be eligible for a full or partial refund based on the terms and conditions.
Users of online dating platforms should also be cautious about anyone who requests money or other financial assistance. Scammers may pose as someone else and create a fake profile to gain the trust and affection of other users with the goal of extortion or identity theft. OCABR warns consumers:
- Never send money by wire transfer or prepaid card. The recipients are often unidentifiable and located in foreign places. This is just like handing over cash, extremely hard to track and return.
- Do not disclose sensitive information about your finances. Innocent statements about wealth or debt may make you a potential target to scammers. It is crucial not to provide anyone with bank account, credit or debit card numbers, or information about other valuable assets.
For more information on online dating scams visit OnGuardOnline.gov, the federal government’s online safety website with tips and information from more than a dozen federal agencies and the technology industry.
Consumers who wish to file a complaint about an online dating service are encouraged to contact OCABR’s consumer information hotline, at 1-617-973-8787, or toll-free in Massachusetts at 1-888-283-3757. Consumers should also contact the Federal Trade Commission by visiting www.ftc.gov or call toll-free 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357); TTY: 1-866-653-4261.
The Patrick Administration’s Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation is committed to protecting consumers through consumer advocacy and education, and also works to ensure that the businesses its agencies regulate treat all Massachusetts consumers fairly. Visit the Office’s website at www.mass.gov/consumer. Follow the Office at its blog, on Facebook and on Twitter, @Mass_Consumer.