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​ACCC cracks down on dating sites and romance scammers

As Australians continue to lose money to "devastating" romance scams, the ACCC is conducting a major sweep of online dating sites to ensure they're protecting customers.

Image by Adrian Serghie, CC BY-SA 2.0

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has announced a crackdown on dodgy online dating sites as part of a major "internet sweep" to enforce consumer protections and "protect vulnerable consumers" online.

After reporting that Australians lost roughly AU$25 million to romance scammers in 2013, the ACCC will be paying particular attention to the systems dating sites have in place to protect their customers against rogue operators.

ACCC Deputy Chair Delia Rickard said dating and romance scams continued to have a "devastating impact" on Australians, with 1,700 complaints and more than AU$16 million reported in financial losses just this year.

"Protecting consumers is a shared responsibility and the ACCC will continue its previous work with industry to develop best practice guidelines and identify ways to protect consumers from romance scams," she said.

But it's not just protections against individual scammers that the ACCC is concerned about -- the watchdog will also be focusing on the websites themselves to ensure they have fair and transparent pricing policies and terms of use.

The ACCC said it is concerned "that some online dating service providers may be offering 'free' trials that hide within the fine print that people are actually being signed up to an ongoing contract" and that customers are facing unfair cancellation conditions.

"We're reminding this booming industry to treat customers in a fair and transparent manner," said Rickard. "If a 'free' offer isn't really free, pricing isn't clear, or a contract is easy to sign up to but hard to get out of, then we will find it."

The ACCC offered a number of tips for those entering the realm of online dating, including reading the fine print in contracts, setting reminders to avoid subscriptions inadvertently rolling over, and a reminder to "know who you are dealing with" online.

"If you have never met a person you are interacting with face to face, you shouldn't be sending them money," the ACCC said. "Any request by a person you have met on an online dating site to wire transfer funds overseas should be raising alarm bells."