By Bob Sullivan Technology correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 11/18/2005 5:56:02 PM ET 2005-11-18T22:56:02

Are Yahoo and Match.com bolstering their online dating services with fake ads and professional flirts? Two lawsuits filed in California recently make such bold claims, separately accusing both firms of fraud.

Match.com says the claims are baseless; Yahoo didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

In the Match.com case, Orange County, Calif. resident Matthew Evans accuses the site of having a "very dirty, very big secret."

"Not everyone that you meet on Match.com is just another Match.com member, " the lawsuit says. "They are Match.com employees with a secret, fraudulent mission."

Evans claims Match uses "date bait" — employees who pretend to be regular subscribers that flirt with members. The lawsuit claims online daters are often approached by date bait just as their subscriptions are about to expire. Victims receive "winks" and e-mails designed to trick them into renewing their membership, the suit alleges.

Evans also claims in the lawsuit that Match.com employees are required to go on "as many as 100 dates per month," and they are "stationed in most of the major U.S. cities."

Match.com spokeswoman Kristin Kelly called the lawsuit "completely without merit." The firm doesn't send automated winks, she said, and employees are not required to date members.  Match.com has about 250 employees worldwide, and 15 million members, making the date bait claim "ridiculous."

"The allegations in this case have absolutely no basis in fact and are completely without merit," she said.

The complaint was filed Nov. 10 in U.S. District Court in Northern California.

In the Yahoo case, filed on Oct. 14, Robert Anthony of Broward County, Fla., accuses the firm of creating fake profiles to keep members interested. Yahoo, the lawsuit alleges, "deliberately and intentionally originates and perpetuates false and or nonexistent profiles on its site to generate interest ... and give the site a much more attractive and functional appearance in order to falsely represent more substantial participation than actually exists."

The lawsuit supplies few other details, however.

"Due to the complicated nature of the fraud, and the use of technology to pertpetrate the fraud, Anthony is unable to disclose all of the examples of fraud," it says.

Anthony's lawyer, Peter McNulty, didn't respond to phone calls requesting comment.

Both lawsuits seek class-action status.

'Black hole'
Mike Arias, Evans' lawyer in the Match.com case, said his client learned about the alleged practices directly from a Match.com employee he dated. Arias said he has no other plaintiffs in the case at the moment, but that he's spoken to other victims and lawyers investigating Match.com practices.

"We've investigated it enough we (to believe the allegations)," he said.  "I've talked to enough people who have given me scenarios."

The lawsuit also claims that paid Match.com workers read member e-mails in order to be more seductive to members they contact.

"Match.com typically has their paid employee contact a subscriber immediately before the end of their subscription," it says.  "(The employee) goes on a date with a subscriber, (and) gives the deceptive appearance of having a lot in common with the subscriber due in part to having read his or her e-mails."

Match.com's Kelly said employees are allowed to use the service, but are not told to date members.

Evans' lawsuit also claims that a flaw in Match.com technology prevents profiles older than 30 days from appearing in some searches the Web site offers. "Unless a person updates their profile, they fall into a 'black hole' of outdated profiles, never to be seen by any other person on Match again," the suit says.

Online dating is big business; for a time, it was the fastest-growing e-commerce sector.  But the industry has always beaten back complaints about fraud and misrepresentation among members. Two years ago, an MSNBC.com investigation revealed a high percentage of ads on several sites were thinly veiled lures to paid porn Web sites. More recently, Nigerian scammers have seized on the services , frequently placing fake ads that lure victims into feigned relationships ultimately designed to trick them into sending large sums of money to criminals outside the U.S.

There have been accusations that dating services benefit from such practices, because if more attractive, young members appear to be using the service, that draws in more paid members.

"That is ridiculous," Kelly said. "We aggressively defend against fraud and proactively pursue it through our fraud and abuse team."

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