Why Match.com allegedly luring lonely customers with fake ‘winks’ is just another form of ‘phishing’

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Match.com is trouble with regulators for allegedly playing games with the hearts of lovelorn consumers in a way that resembles a lot of romance scams.

Similar to a scammer’s “phishing” scam, pledging a love connection in exchange for cash, the Federal Trade Commission sued the dating site Wednesday for allegedly profiting on empty promises to account users in order to get them to pay for the service.

From June 2016 to May 2018, consumers bought nearly 500,000 subscriptions within a day of receiving the questionable wink, according to the lawsuit.

The FTC alleges the dating site allowed likely scammers to send “winks” to people with free accounts. The conned consumers could check out the message — so long as they paid for an account, the FTC claimed.

From June 2016 to May 2018, consumers bought nearly 500,000 subscriptions within a day of receiving the questionable wink, according to the lawsuit.

After the customers signed up, they either read a fraudulent communication or a notice that the profile was unavailable, the FTC said.

Though Match Group owns Match.com and other sites like Tinder and OK Cupid, the FTC lawsuit only refers to Match.com. While the FTC and the Match Group gear up for a court fight, romance scams are, sadly, big business.

If Match.com did, indeed, allow fake winks to lure people into paying for a subscription on the site, it doesn’t look much different from the kind of tactics scammers use when they try to “phish” for lonely singletons who are willing to hand over money. “These kinds of romance scams are very targeted social engineering attacks, effectively ‘hacking’ the victim’s emotions, rather than trying to perform a technical assault,” Nathan Wenzler, senior director of cybersecurity at Seattle-Wash. accounting, consulting, and wealth management firm Moss Adams, told MarketWatch.

In a typical scenario, a victim meets someone through a dating website or other online space. The person claims to live far away and asks them to wire money for “emergency” costs like a sick relative, a car repair, or even an airline ticket so they can meet up in real life.

Case in point: A woman came across a man on dating app Tinder claiming to be a U.S. Army captain and quickly fell for him. He had promised to take care of her and her children, according to a report from Gizmodo, if he could just have money to get home. By the time she realized she was being swindled, she had sent him more than $700.

How romance scams work

Consumer have lost $884 million from 2015 to 2017 on romance scams, according to FBI and FTC estimates cited in Wednesday’s lawsuit. The FTC received over 21,000 romance scam complaints last year, up from 8,500 in 2015.

A usual con happens when suspicious suitors meet someone online, say they live far away and are in need money. The cash is supposedly for emergency expenses or a plane ticket to meet up. People can also get bilked out of their money when scammers blackmail them with compromising photos.

Last month, federal prosecutors indicted 80 people in a romance scam ring that stole $46 million from victims in search of love online.

There are some quick tips to avoid scams:

• No one should ever send money of gifts to online objects of affection who they have never met.

• Be cautious about people who refuse to use photos of themselves and won’t speak on the phone.

• Running a Google Image GOOG, -0.41% GOOGL, -0.29%  search on a profile picture can reveal if the photo is being reused from another place online.

Shares of Match Group are up 67% since the start of the year. The S&P 500 SPX, -0.24%   is up 19% and the Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, -0.30%   is up almost 16% in the same period.

In the lawsuit filed Wednesday, Match.com “delivered millions of advertisements to consumers touting communications that [Match.com] knew to be sent by users likely engaging in fraud,” said the lawsuit filed in Texas federal court. If the consumers were paying customers, they never would have received the advertisements, the court papers added.

“We believe that Match.com conned people into paying for subscriptions via messages the company knew were from scammers,” Andrew Smith, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement. “Online dating services obviously shouldn’t be using romance scammers as a way to fatten their bottom line.”

Match Group, Match.com’s parent company, said it has been “relentless” in pushing bots and fake accounts off the site, it said.

In its statement, Match Group MTCH, +0.00%  said the Justice Department previously opted against pressing a case “and referred it back to the FTC who then filed a lawsuit against us today making completely meritless allegations supported by consciously misleading figures.”

“Fraud isn’t good for business,” the company continued. “That’s why we fight it. We catch and neutralize 85% of potentially improper accounts in the first four hours, typically before they are even active on the site, and 96% of improper accounts within a day.”

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