By Bob Sullivan Technology correspondent
msnbc.com

Her online personal ad said she liked the outdoors, camping, hiking, biking, blading, and “yes, even fishing.” Don was online looking for love, like millions of other men, and thought “Amyloov” was sexy, so he dropped her a note through Yahoo.com’s personals. But finding out if Amyloov was “the one” came with a price tag — $4 a minute, in fact. Amyloov turned out to be just a cleverly disguised advertisement for a pay-per-minute sex line.

And Amyloov is hardly alone. Two of the three women Don tried to contact through Match.com, the top personal ad Web site, turned out to be fakes, too.

In both cases, the members wrote back to Don — who requested anonymity — with flirty notes, suggesting a very personal interest in a real-world meeting. Only at the end of those enticing e-mails did the sales pitch appear.

“I would love to try to get together and do something. I was thinking maybe just grabbing a drink or two. It’s funny how everyone says ‘a’ drink when they very well know it’s never just one. Ha!” wrote fake No. 2, who called herself Sandy Marcino.

But, before they were to meet, Sandy just wanted to chat online a time or two — so she invited Don to visit her Web home page at 9 p.m. the next night.

A visit to Sandy’s home page includes a couple of titillating photographs of a tall blond woman who’s short on clothes. Sandy says she has more revealing photographs, and a chat tool, on another page, but to get there, there’s a catch — “this age verification thing,” Sandy says. Since the pictures are “steamy,” it’s a formality required by Sandy’s ISP, she says.

“I know it sounds all official, but when I first put up this site I had a bunch of little boys and crazies after me (plus geocities requires it for ‘adult’ pics),” the site says. “It’s a free dealy so don’t worry!”

Just like Sandy, that’s a lie. The age verification service is actually FreeNetPass, which costs $50, and allows entry to a network of porn Internet sites. “Sandy” is just looking for a cut of the signup fee.

Pornographers have learned that online personal ads provide them with a fantastic opportunity to do some very targeted marketing. It might sound like taking out a $20 personal is expensive marketing, but not when you get to directly contact hundreds of hot leads — and even a single conversion more that doubles your money.

Three out of 100 are porn ads
Don’s two-out-of-three experience may be unusual, but it is not hard to find gateways to pornographic sites among the personal ads of online dating sites. MSNBC.com conducted random, not scientific searches of Match.com and Yahoo.com’s personal ads. In both cases, three out of the first 100 hits on a search of Seattle-area singles turned into direct porn solicitations.

The pattern is always the same — a very flirty e-mail, followed by a request for the man’s real e-mail address, then another e-mail pushing the man to visit the woman’s home page. Some of the sites then push men to call a pay-per-minute chat line, but most are upsells for porn Web sites.

There’s always some kind of misleading rationale explaining the site’s requirement for a registration and membership — with mention of the fee buried deeply in the details.

A nice enough girl
“Dayszofourlivez” seemed like a nice enough girl in her Yahoo personal ad, and her modest photo revealed a woman of just above-average looks wearing a plain white T-shirt. Her interests seem healthy enough. She wrote in her profile that she was a caring, funny and outgoing person. “I love to be with people who make me laugh and who laugh with me. I like to stay active. I just started mountain biking and I also go jogging a few times a week. I sometimes go hiking, camping, and river rafting with my family,” she wrote.

When MSNBC.com made first contact with her, she seemed eager to get some plans for the weekend in her reply.

Hey!! I am so happy that you answered my ad!! I am excited! Ok well, I really hate to make this a short reply, but I have to go get some things taken care of today since I finally have some time, but maybe if you have no plans tonight..teehee, b/c I don’t..and I need some..hint hint, so write me back at my hotmail acount, lisasfunbx1, hotmail is my homepage on my computer at my place so I will get back to you much faster. I guess we could swap pics and then maybe make some plans, ok better get going. Hope to hear from ya!! Chow, Lisa:) [sic]

For safety reasons, online personal sites like Match.com and Yahoo.com allow interested people to communicate anonymously through the Web sites’ private e-mail systems. But to run the scam and avoid detection, the porn purveyor has to get the victim’s personal e-mail address. That was Lisa’s goal.

That became apparent in her next e-mail, which came with the subtle pitch.

“Hey! Glad to hear back from ya! Did you go out at all over the weekend? Unforunately (sic) I didn’t. Ran some errands here and there. Anyway, I am going to go to the gym so hit me up on aol messanger later, lisaforfunus1 is my s/n , I don’t like this email back and forth stuff. Well here are my pics, http://REMOVED. There is some more about me on my site, but if you want to know more don’t hesitate to ask. Well, got to get going. Talk to you later. Lisa [sic]

There’s certainly enough personal information in that note to entice a hopeful suitor to click on the Web site — but probably to the suitor’s disappointment, that site contains pictures of a different woman in very sexy clothes and various states of undress, with the enticement to “click here for more.”

And on that page comes the pitch, again for FreeNetPass.

“To see the rest of me, you have to verify that you are over 18,” the site says. “FreeNetPass is the quick and simple way.... Just sign up for your “Free Net Pass” Then it will take you to the FreeNetPass site, where you can read about the service and that it is free.”

Personal sites beat back ads
Online personals sites are aware of the unsavory use of their services, and say they are doing what they can to stop it. Match.com, Yahoo.com, and uDate.com all say they review every new personal ad before it’s posted. But Tim Sullivan, president of Match.com, admits that it’s tough to screen out carefully-crafted personals like Lisa’s, which seem on the surface to be legitimate.

“Occasionally there are profiles that make it on the site that violate our terms of service,” Sullivan said. “We’re pretty diligent in trying to sniff out certain profiles on the site that would be using our site for inappropriate purposes, trying to stay ahead of folks that would seek to misuse the environment. But I acknowledge that our screening standards are not perfect.”

The company’s third line of defense are customers like Don who complain, Sullivan said. Porn ad profiles are removed immediately when there’s a complaint, and that seems to be the case. Most of the porn ads spotted by MSNBC.com on Match.com and Yahoo.com were removed after a week or two.

Sullivan said his service “got on the radar” of porn companies in February or March of this year. Since then, the con artists and the personals sites have been playing cat-and-mouse, with personals’ sites using new screening techniques while porn advertisers find more clever ways to disguise their motives.

One clever con?
It’s not clear how many online personals users have fallen for the trap, but Dave Anderson, who operates FreeNetPass, says the operation may have cost him “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in fraudulent sales. While some of the fake personals eventually turn into promotions for 900 toll calls or other porn Web sites, most are pitches for Anderson’s FreeNetPass.

He claims the misleading advertisements are the fault of rogue affiliates who are violating his company’s policies. Since he has to refund victims, he claims the fake porn/personal ads cost him money. Anderson said he closes the affiliates account as soon as he hears about the bogus activity, but con artists just open up new accounts, anonymously.

“We have thousands of active affiliates,” Anderson said. “It’s hard for us to know where each sale comes from. When we do get complaints, they are instantly reviewed. ... It’s horrendous for us. We pay the affiliate, then the member charges back or calls for a refund. We lose money on it 90 percent of the time.”

Anderson claims a single, crafty con artist is behind most of the scams.

“There’s one guy out there that’s really big into this and he’s hard to catch. (The online dating sites) have a private investigator on him ... I think it’s one guy that has a group of people working for him. He’s probably made quite a lot of money from us.”

For now, the porn ads continue to riddle online personals sites. Martin Clifford, president of uDate, said the services essentially work to make life as hard as possible for those who would post fake personal profiles.

“So if the photo is of a very beautiful person, there’s more scrutiny for that person,” Clifford said. The site also says porn solicitations can’t be distributed en masse on the site, forcing would-be porn promoters to tease their materials one e-mail at a time.

How to spot trouble
While the ads are tricky to spot, it’s not impossible. They tend to be women in their 20s who have very general information listed in their personal essays, and often leave many personal details fields blank. And of course, an immediate request for a private e-mail address should be suspicious.

One other drawback to falling for the scam — an immediate infusion of pornography spam to the e-mail address.

But while the ads remain, Sullivan says Match.com had a “crisis reaction” to their initial appearance back in February, which kept them to a minimum.

“We realized if this got out of control it would impact our brand, and we’ve to a large extent beaten back the effort,” Sullivan said. “What we’re doing is fighting the same battle Hotmail and Yahoo and AOL are fighting to beat back spammers.”

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

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