Spark Networks USA, LLC, the parent company of niche dating sites Jdate and Christian Mingle, among others, has agreed to change its website and sales practices to better protect California consumers. The Los Angeles-based company also will pay $500,000 in penalties and up to $985,000 in restitution to customers whose subscriptions automatically renewed or who were denied refunds when requested.
The Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office acted as lead counsel for the People of the State of California on the case. The terms are part of a final court judgment negotiated with a task force of local prosecutors that also included the district attorneys of Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz Counties.
The task force learned that Spark’s dating sites were automatically renewing customer payments, without their express prior consent as required by federal and state law, among other alleged violations of law.
The judgment requires Jdate, Christian Mingle, and all of Spark’s other dating sites to have full transparency with consumers about automatically-renewing memberships. The company now must:
- Clearly and conspicuously disclose the renewal terms;
- Get consumers’ consent, through a separate check-box (or similar mechanism) that does not include other terms and conditions;
- Send a clear summary of the renewal terms after consumers pay; and
- Allow consumers to cancel easily.
“Automatic renewal is one of the critical areas in consumer protection today,” said Chief Deputy City Attorney Adam Radinsky, head of Santa Monica’s Consumer Protection Division. “Consumers always have the right to know where their money is going.”
Spark Networks cooperated with the task force to reach the resolution.
“The Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office is committed to protecting consumers from unfair and unlawful business practices,” said City Attorney Lane Dilg. “This joint effort is an important victory to ensure that consumers will not be subject to recurring charges without their clear consent.”
The judgment was filed today in Santa Monica Superior Court.
Online “subscriptions” and other automatically recurring charges have proliferated in the U.S. in recent years. Some renewals come after “free trials,” where consumers need to cancel in time to avoid the charges.
Federal and state law requires businesses to make these auto-renewals clear to consumers, and to get their “express, affirmative consent” – before they collect any money. However, many businesses still don’t follow this law.
In January 2018, a similar group of prosecutors that included the Santa Monica City Attorney, obtained a $2.2 million judgment against eHarmony, another prominent dating site, for automatic-renewal violations.
In August 2017, the Santa Monica City Attorney obtained a $3.6 million judgment against Beachbody, one of the world’s largest sellers of exercise videos, supplements, and weight-loss programs. That settlement included the first injunction in California to require the separate check-box to consumers’ consent.
“The separate check-box is the key,” said Radinsky. “Otherwise, it’s confusing and consumers can’t properly consent. Companies have too many ways to hide the auto-renewal terms.”
“Jdate and Christian Mingle now will have one of the best online disclosure and consent pages in the business.”
Deputy City Attorney Gary Rhoades also worked on the case.
The Santa Monica City Attorney’s Consumer Protection Division promotes fairness through awareness and enforcement of the law. To report a consumer issue, go to smconsumer.org or call 310-458-8336.
Submitted by Miranda Iglesias