eHarmony accused of toxic relationship with customers

A popular online dating site is accused of entrapping singles by only showing them blurred photos of their matches and then locking them in a toxic cycle of membership renewal.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has accused US-based eHarmony of breaching consumer law by making misleading statements about pricing, renewal and duration of memberships.

The consumer watchdog launched Federal Court action against eHarmony on Thursday, alleging it tried to lure daters to sign up by falsely advertising "free dating", one-month memberships and early cancellation options.

Daters can register for free subscriptions after completing an 80-question compatibility quiz, but these memberships do not allow them to properly communicate with matches, the ACCC has claimed.

The free option only allows singles to see blurred, unrecognisable profile photos of other members and does not permit them to engage in ongoing communication, the watchdog will allege.

Free members are instead limited to liking other profiles, receiving and sending a single reply to one text from a premium member, using the "icebreaker feature" and sending a virtual smiley.

It's further alleged the site, which boasts it helps singles find "real love", tried to trap them into signing up for six, 12 or 24-month memberships when they actually automatically renewed, costing hundreds of dollars more.

"The ACCC is concerned about the issue of subscription traps in digital services," commission chair Gina Cass-Gottlieb said. 

"We remind digital platforms of the need to be clear with consumers about renewals and cancellations."

She said consumers using online dating may be more at risk of succumbing to misleading or manipulative selling practices 

"Dating apps provide important services that are used by many Australians to meet new people and make connections, and they have become an intrinsic part of many people's social lives," Ms Cass-Gottlieb said.

"These are personal services, and consumers may bring a different state of mind to these interactions than a commercial one."

The ACCC wants eHarmony to pay penalties, costs and make declarations to the court, as well as injunctions and consumer redress.

An eHarmony spokeswoman said the company had co-operated with the ACCC throughout its investigation, but could not comment further as the matter was before the court.

"We deeply value the experience of all our members, including our Australian members, and we take our compliance obligations seriously," she said.

"We intend to fully respond to the ACCC’s allegations in court."

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