It's not easy finding love in cyberspace, and now some frustrated online daters say they were victims of fraud by two top Internet matchmaking services and have taken their complaints to court.
Match.com, a unit of IAC/Interactive Corp., is accused in a federal lawsuit of goading members into renewing their subscriptions through bogus romantic e-mails sent out by company employees. In some instances, the suit contends, people on the Match payroll even went on sham dates with subscribers as a marketing ploy.
"This is a grossly fraudulent practice that Match.com is engaged in," said H. Scott Leviant, a lawyer at Los Angeles law firm Arias, Ozzello & Gignac LLP, which brought the suit.
Match "promotes the policies of integrity to protect members, and yet they themselves, we allege, are misleading their entire customer base," he said.
The company said it does not comment on pending litigation. But Match spokeswoman Kristin Kelly said the company "absolutely does not" employ people to go on dates with subscribers or to send members misleading e-mails professing romantic interest. The company has about 15 million members worldwide and 250 employees, she said.
In a separate suit, Yahoo Inc.'s personals service is accused of posting profiles of fictitious potential dating partners on its Web site to make it look as though many more singles subscribe to the service than actually do.
Yahoo spokeswoman Rochelle Adams said the company had no comment on the lawsuit.
The suits, which both seek class-action status, came as growth in the online dating industry has slowed, although Web matchmaking still remains a big business.
U.S. consumers spent $245.2 million on online personals and dating services in the first half of 2005, up 7.6 percent from a year earlier, according to the Online Publishers Association. That's a slower growth rate compared with several years ago.
At the same time, competition among online dating services is fierce, with some sites offering newfangled features such as extensive compatibility surveys to match up people with similar temperaments and outlooks.
ALLEGATIONS OF 'DATE BAIT'
The Match lawsuit was filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles by plaintiff Matthew Evans, who contends he went out with a woman he met through the site who turned out to be nothing more than "date bait" working for the company.
The relationship went nowhere, according to his suit. Evans says Match set up the date for him because it wanted to keep him from pulling the plug on his subscription and was hoping he'd tell other potential members about the attractive woman he met through the service, according to Leviant.
His lawyers said Evans, of Orange County, California, was not available to comment, but described him as a working professional in his 30s.
Leviant said his client found out about the alleged scam after the woman he dated confessed she was employed by Match. The lawsuit also claims the company violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, a law best known for being used in prosecuting organized crime.
The Yahoo suit was filed last month by Robert Anthony, of Broward County, Florida. The suit, brought in U.S. District Court in San Jose, California, accuses the company of breach of contract, fraud and unfair trade practices.
Anthony's lawyer, Peter McNulty of the McNulty Law Firm in Bel Air, California, did not respond to requests for comment.