Major dating websites will be probed by Australia’s consumer watchdog for dodgy membership deals, hidden costs and inadequate protection against romance scams.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is sweeping100 dating websites as part of an international initiative aimed at protecting vulnerable consumers.
Confusing pricing, misleading advertising and contracts with unfair conditions are being targeted in the search. About a dozen staff are also investigating whether the dating websites provide sufficient warnings against scammers.
Since the start of the year the ACCC has received almost 1700 complaints about dating and romance scams, with more than $16 million lost. Last year $25 million was reported lost to dating scams.
“We think that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” ACCC deputy chair Delia Rickard said, adding that some Australians have been scammed more than $100,000 this year. “We’re convinced it’s being under reported. We know a lot of people are too embarrassed to ever tell anyone and we also know some people will go for years without admitting to themselves that they’re being scammed.”
“One of the more insidious, nasty, terrible things that we’re seeeing happen is that scammers will organise Skype sessions and get people do to fairly intimate video things and they will keep a record of that and when the person stops sending money they will then try to blackmail them.”
The ACCC has received more than 100 complaints this year about dating websites’ misleading conduct, hidden pricing and unfair contract terms, such as offering free trials but hiding in the fine print that users are actually being signed up to an ongoing contract. There have also been reports of dating websites signing people up to long-term contracts with restrictive cancellation clauses.
“If a ‘free’ offer isn’t really free, pricing isn’t clear, or a contract is easy to sign up to but hard to get out of, then we will find it,” Ms Rickard said.
“We know a lot of these sites want as many members as possible, they don’t do any vetting. Lots of the members aren’t really active so they’re giving a misleading impression to consumers about how big the pool of potential people to meet [is].”
The search is part of the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network’s 16th annual internet sweep, involving more than 50 consumer protection agencies around the world.
Tips for dating website customers:
* Read all the terms and conditions of the contract.
* Check your options for cancelling the contract before signing.
* Set reminders to cancel your subscription to avoid it rolling over.
* Research the business.
* If you are meeting someone you have met online, make sure it is in a public place and tell a friend or family member where you are going.
* Never send money to someone you have not met face to face.