WASHINGTON, June 5, 2016 — It is not hard to understand a single person’s desire for love and companionship. (See Adam and Eve.) Fast forward to the internet. The tools for finding love flourish there. It is currently estimated that one in five marriages today now comes from online dating.
We venture forth into romance. But we can get burned. Horror stories about dating site dates continue to surface, including situations ranging from ridiculous mismatches, to fraudulent “profiles,” to being scammed and losing money. Even worse, there have also been instances of stalking and assaults.
When crimes are committed that are associated with online dating, the matters transcend the dating service itself and are handled by the authorities when reported. Sadly, however, when dates go badly wrong for any reason, civil law—the body of law enabling a victim to seek monetary compensation or reimbursement—mostly does not protect the victim.
The closest analogy to how this works is when you go into a bar looking for love. If the rendezvous turns out badly, you cannot sue the bar.
“Caveat emptor” (“buyer beware”) is a key tenet of consumer law. And so it is in the world of online dating. Not everyone is blond and skinny or muscular with a full head of hair and a pleasant personality. Online dating can lead to rip-off scams, sexual predators, felons, stalkers, data theft, defamation and damage to your reputation.
So tell me about yourself. On-line? Yes? Okay, tell me honestly.
Looking for a date or a relationship? Act as you would in a bar. Be careful. Be suspicious. Be slow before giving out too much information. Don’t provide your last name or telephone number too quickly, and assume that anyone who mentions a huge family trust fund or an ownership interest in a diamond mine in Africa is probably stretching the truth.
Every divorce attorney has a story about a potential client seeking a divorce because he or she met someone across the country that the client wants to marry. When asked if they’ve ever met, the answer is “No, but I know this is my soul mate.” Maybe. But again, be careful.
In today’s world of online dating, there are currently three kinds of available services. They offer:
- The ability to search for and view photographs of prospects.
- The opportunity to exchange messages and set up in-person meetings.
- The ability to “match” with individuals who are possible long-term romantic prospects.
In order to pair you with others, the dating services collect personal data from you. You fill out a form, identify your preferences, and perhaps even provide a blood sample. You will provide a photograph of yourself, identify your age, height, weight, date of birth, religion and ethnic identity in some cases, as well as your history of relationships, including whether you have been married before and if you have children. You will be asked your occupation or profession and where you live and work. You may be asked about your drinking or criminal history.
Results for the effort? One dating service advertises that potential matches are “prescreened for deep compatibility with you across 29 dimensions.” In reality, your mileage may vary. But where else can you go to get potentially hundreds of people interested in dating you in less than an hour?
Miffed because you got matched up with someone with whom you have nothing in common? Have you endured date after torturous date through a given service? The likelihood is that the site actually did what it was supposed to do. It matched you with someone compatible according to the data you submitted. The problem is, people lie.
“I don’t know any of us who are in relationships that are totally honest – it doesn’t exist.” — Richard Gere
“I hate first dates. I made the mistake of telling my date a lie about myself, and she caught me. I didn’t think she’d actually demand to see the bat cave.” — Alex Reed
How many people are really honest in their profiles? Analysts say fibbing is common. Men say they are taller, women say they weigh less. Studies show that 80 percent of profiles contain inaccuracies.
When you sign up for an online dating service, you are signing a contract. You have undoubtedly heard the expression that contracts contain “fine print.” Indeed, a dating site’s fine print, often appearing in the section of the contract called Terms of Service, states among other things that once you give them your information, it is theirs forever. This includes photographs you provide of yourself. Even if you quit the service, find true happiness and get married, the site keeps your data because they believe you’ll be back.
Sites are also allowed to share your data. Tell them of your upcoming nuptials, off goes your data to a wedding site. Most “hyper-target” you and use your demographic, preference, psychological and behavioral data to sell your information to companies offering products and services you likely want or will want.
In 2014, however, a California jury awarded a class of members $16.5 million in damages against a dating site for STD-positive singles that promised its customers 100 percent confidentiality. Yet the site gave members’ personal information to thousands of its related websites.
Another clause in all dating sites’ contracts says that they are not responsible for the truth or accuracy of the information provided by members. Translation: if people lie, too bad for you.
Dating site contracts also list multiple liability disclaimers. The language includes phrasing and terminology such as:
“You are solely responsible…”
“You understand (we) do not in any way screen our members.”
“(We) are not responsible for any incorrect or inaccurate content posted.”
Lawsuits against dating sites listing false statements made by other members mostly go nowhere because the law protected these sites with the Communications Decency Act of 1996. That act says that these sites cannot be held responsible for the lies by its members.
One lawsuit that did prevail occurred in 2007 when Yahoo Personals agreed to pay $4 million to settle claims alleging they allowed people to post fake profiles when those doing the posting actually had no interest in finding dates.
Nefarious behavior doesn’t always involve only the members of these online services. Two sites reportedly created fake profiles to keep paying members from cancelling their accounts. One site actually sent employees on dates posing as paying members.
Attempting to help, some states require dating sites to tell possible customers whether they have done criminal record background checks on all customers and prospective dates. There is no requirement to do these checks. They just need to tell you if they do them.
A Florida model sued a dating site in 2013 and helpfully proposed an improvement as to what the sites should do in this regard. She claimed they could easily weed out fake profiles if they used photo recognition software and checked IP addresses.
A Las Vegas woman sued a dating site for $10 million after the man she was paired with stabbed her 10 times in the face and chest in an effort to kill her. The man was prosecuted and sentenced to 28 to 70 years in jail. The woman lost her civil damages lawsuit against the site because of the Communications Decency Act, which specifies that “websites are not liable for user content.”
Recommendations for improving your search for on-line love:
- The site address should begin with “https,” which signifies online security.
- The site should truly delete your data when you close your account.
- It should disclose who else gets your data.
- It should provide the name and telephone number of a real person to contact with questions or concerns.
- You should use a free email account specifically set up for on-line dating. Some sites offer a “blind” email service. If so, use it.
- Put out your suspicious antenna. If your instincts raise questions, act. This means if prospective dates don’t resemble their photos, if they appear to have frightening or aggressive personalities or appear dishonest, it is okay to retreat from or completely abandon the date.
- Always follow common sense online privacy rules.
- Read the terms of service and privacy policies before signing on with any online dating site.
- Check your local Better Business Bureau website for scams involving any online dating service you’re considering.
Be realistic. But always remember: To find a prince, you gotta kiss some toads.
Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia and has been practicing since 1980. He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website.
His book “The 8 Critical Things Your Auto Accident Attorney Won’t Tell You” can be instantly downloaded, for free, on his website: http://www.samakowlaw.com/book.
Joe Mabel GNU online license v. 1.2