Love doesn't cost a thing, or so they say. The online dating industry is now estimated to be worth in excess of $4 billion globally, and with monthly membership fees hovering around the £30 mark, it seems love – or finding it at least – can actually cost quite a lot.
Popular sites such as Match.com, eHarmony.com and MySingleFriend.com – alongside sites as esoteric as Christianconnection.com and Muddymatches.com – have all profited from the online dating boom. But online dating scams are on the increase, so what should you look out for when searching for your soulmate?
Research carried out by Leicester and Westminster Universities last year found almost 230,000 Britons were aware they had been targeted by online dating fraudsters, and an increasing number of criminal gangs and grooming users were using fake profiles to extort cash from unwitting members.
"An attractive profile draws the victim into a potential relationship. This is then followed by a grooming process, which can last from a couple of weeks to several months or even a year," says Professor Monica Whitty of Leicester University, who carried out the study.
Meanwhile, separate figures from the Office for National Statistics show that online dating fraud was up 27% to 229,000 cases over the year to July 2013, meaning you could end up losing a lot more than just the hefty monthly membership fee.
Pleas for cash
Initially, fraudsters will gain the trust of their online victims. Invariably, they will run into supposed difficulties – a sick relative, visa issues, unpaid bills – and will extort cash this way. Recently, several women from Basingstoke in Hampshire were conned by a man claiming to be from the area. He told his victims he had a considerable inheritance in South Africa and needed money to unlock the funds. But as soon as the money was wired over, he disappeared into cyberspace. Detectives said the amount stolen via this single scam had run into "thousands of pounds".
While this con might seem pedestrian and easy to avoid, the online dating boom has also fuelled a number of suspect sites. Typical cons here include sending registered users fake messages to prompt them to sign up or populating sites with fake profiles.
Privacy watchdog the Information Commissioner has kicked off a probe into the industry over claims that personal data has been sold to dating sites to increase their membership. It followed a BBC Panorama investigation in July, which claimed images, names and dates of birth were sold to dating websites to create false aliases.
"Research by dating news site Online Personals Watch suggests on some online dating sites the number of fake profiles could be as high as 10%. And, it's not just fake profiles conning consumers, but fake sites as well," warns Stuart Fuller, director of commercial operations and communications at NetNames, which provides digital protection. "Consumers are increasingly being targeted with phishing emails to encourage them to sign up and pay for a service that they will never receive."
He adds: "Alternatively, many users complain they have signed up to online dating sites and have been bombarded with requests to connect during the trial period, all of which have dried up once they subscribe."
Beating the scammers
Some sites have already taken action against potential scammers. Cupid.com has just launched a ‘safe mode', which will allow users to filter out members who won't verify themselves. Match.com employs moderators to screen any user-generated content, while eHarmony has a team to find and remove suspicious profiles.
"We require the completion of a fairly in-depth personality questionnaire and encourage users to flag suspicious behaviour," Romain Bertrand, UK managing director of eHarmony, told Moneywise.
And how easy is it to leave? Sites such as Match.com, Guardian Soulmates and eHarmony simply require users to log on and cancel online. But some daters have reported having trouble cancelling their profiles from various matchmaking websites and have been billed for membership in subsequent months after cancelling.
The Financial Ombudsman Service advises: "If you want to cancel, speak to the business first but you can also cancel with the bank or credit provider. If they fail to sort things out, contact the Ombudsman."
Proceed with caution
Lawyer Will Richmond-Coggan, a partner at Pitmans LLP which specialises in online reputation and privacy issues, sounds a final note of caution: "You are physically secure – sitting on a sofa while using your smartphone, or in your office – so you don't think of yourself being out in the world. In reality, you should approach online engagement with the same level of caution and common sense you would employ to go into a large city."
He advises online dating site users should "only share the minimum private information". "Do not volunteer any information online that you would not get printed on little cards and hand out on the high street."