ASK GEORGIE! BEWARE OF DAT­ING POOL SHARKS

It’s touted as the “modern” way of find­ing a part­ner. Tread with cau­tion, though, be­cause cat­fish­ing and fake pro­files are not the only per­ils in your vir­tual path to find­ing true love

The Star Early Edition - - FRONT PAGE -

THANKS to the ex­plo­sion of dat­ing sites, cou­ples seem to be as likely to meet vir­tu­ally as in the real world, which tra­di­tion­ally oc­curred by way of in­tro­duc­tion, blind dates, or meet-ups in pubs and clubs.

Over the years, the tech’s been re­fined, which al­lows users to pick and choose their ideal match. So, there’s dat­ing for se­niors, the mid­dle-aged, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tions, life­style, re­li­gion etc – even niche sites for rab­bit-food eaters, the gluten-in­tol­er­ant, bearded won­ders, farm­ers… and ba­con lovers. Hope­fully, you get to fil­ter out the smok­ers, the ruf­fi­ans and the soap dodgers (un­less those are your ex­act type).

The draw­backs are nu­mer­ous, though: mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion, cat­fish­ing, lousy match­ing, ob­jec­ti­fi­ca­tion and pro­jec­tion are just some of the psy­cho­log­i­cal pit­falls of hook­ing up in the vir­tual world.

Many of us know some­one who found their match on­line: a friend, *Philippa, told me she met the love of her life, Stu­art, on­line in 1999 – they’ve now been mar­ried for 16 years and have two chil­dren.

She’s one of the lucky ones: oth­ers warned about hav­ing to kiss a lot of frogs, cat­fish­ing (lur­ing some­one into a re­la­tion­ship by adopt­ing a fic­tional on­line per­sona), and dodgy fraud­sters.

Be­sides the both­er­some hu­man el­e­ment, it’s pure busi­ness for the op­er­a­tors: in the US, the in­dus­try made $2.5 bil­lion last year.

A Euro­pean site op­er­at­ing in a few coun­tries, EliteSin­gles.co.za, which touts it­self as “SA’s no 1 dat­ing site for ed­u­cated sin­gles and pro­fes­sion­als!” of­fers a “part­ner­ship ser­vice” for South African sin­gles “look­ing for long-term com­mit­ment”.

They prom­ise “smart pro­fil­ing” to de­liver com­pat­i­ble part­ner­ship sug­ges­tions, in line with your per­sonal search pref­er­ences – and the man­ual ver­i­fi­ca­tion of all new pro­files to en­sure a “smooth, safe en­vi­ron­ment in which to meet other like-minded sin­gles”.

They use “match­ing al­go­rithms” to try to help clients find some­one, i.e. match­ing per­son­al­i­ties, gen­der, age, pro­fes­sion, lev­els of ed­u­ca­tion and other vari­ables.

So far, so good; but the re­al­ity is matches are hardly ever made in heaven and can­celling mem­ber­ship is not par­tic­u­larly easy, a reader told me.

“We lonely sin­gles who sign up for on­line dat­ing are not just preyed on by op­por­tunists, but the sites them­selves are dodgy,” Bianca* told me.

“On Novem­ber 20 last year, I signed up with EliteSin­gles after a friend rec­om­mended them, say­ing they were more ex­pen­sive than other sites, but ba­si­cally the pro­files you en­counter there are of a bit of a higher cal­i­bre and you get fewer chancers look­ing to take ad­van­tage etc. It was a mis­sion of note, noth­ing was clear and while I thought I had signed up for a year (R815), ap­par­ently it was only six months. This came with loads of dis­claimers that mem­ber­ship is au­to­mat­i­cally re­newed at the end of your term. I tried to can­cel the au­to­matic re­newal im­me­di­ately, but couldn’t be­cause it in­volved can­celling my pro­file, which of course I wanted to use… I tried the site for a while but found it to be full of fake pro­files and peo­ple try­ing to lure me off the site. It was a frus­trat­ing shark tank.

“Then, to­wards the end of May, I re­ceived a mail from them say­ing my mem­ber­ship had ex­pired and au­to­mat­i­cally been re­newed be­cause I had failed to no­tify them at least 24 hours in ad­vance that I wanted to can­cel. They had tried to take R1 014 from my ac­count, but had been blocked. They sus­pended my mem­ber­ship and sent me a de­mand for the full amount for the next six months.”

So, Bianca deleted her pro­file and mailed them back, ask­ing what they were try­ing to charge for. She wanted a copy of the agree­ment they claimed she had en­tered into, and was sent a para­graph claim­ing she had bought the “min­i­mum pe­riod” mem­ber­ship (no time limit de­tailed) with an “au­to­matic re­newal for R…”.

They claimed she was li­able for the en­tire amount and threat­ened to hand her over.

But Bianca’s no con­sumer pushover, so she in­formed them they were break­ing the law, as the Con­sumer Pro­tec­tion Act (CPA) re­quires they send a mem­ber­ship ex­piry re­minder at least 40 days be­fore­hand (and not more than 80 days be­fore) and that they failed to of­fer her a can­cel­la­tion fee.

She said the site was vague, their prac­tices were un­fair and they failed to in­form her of the tar­iff in­creases. Then threat­ened to take it fur­ther.

The fol­low­ing day, EliteSin­gles told her she was wrong not to have re­alised they were en­ti­tled to the au­to­matic re­newal pay­ment but, as a ges­ture of good­will, they would write off her case.

“They’re rip­ping peo­ple off all over. Try to find their price list! They have no phone num­bers and claim to op­er­ate from a build­ing in Ger­many. I hope they get shut down or else forced to at least com­ply with our laws!”

I mailed EliteSin­gles, ask­ing them to ex­plain their au­to­matic roll-overs, the fact that users strug­gle to con­tact the site, and why they re­new the paid mem­ber­ships after a month’s sub­scrip­tion.

A PR spokesman re­sponded: “At EliteSin­gles, our aim is to pro­vide the best ser­vice to our cus­tomers; this in­cludes the can­cel­la­tion of sub­scrip­tions. Our mem­bers in South Africa are able to can­cel their ac­count up to 24 hours be­fore re­newal… Mem­bers can can­cel their sub­scrip­tions ei­ther on the web­site it­self, via e-mail or us­ing the con­tact form. For app pay­ments, th­ese can be can­celled via Google Play or iTunes de­pend­ing on op­er­at­ing sys­tem. We have im­ple­mented th­ese poli­cies in line with South African law; how­ever, we do feel it is only fair to be more le­nient if our users fail to can­cel within the stated can­cel­la­tion pe­riod. Our team of cus­tomer care agents are on hand to sup­port our mem­bers in such cases, to make the process as sim­ple as pos­si­ble.

“Users can find more in­for­ma­tion on pric­ing and can­cel­la­tion by vis­it­ing our help cen­tre or web­site.”

EliteSin­gles is vi­o­lat­ing our do­mes­tic laws. Ouma Ra­maru, me­dia li­ai­son for the Con­sumer Goods and Ser­vices Om­bud, stresses: “They need to abide by our laws and reg­u­la­tion, and their site says they have an open site here in South Africa.

“They are not con­sid­er­ing the pro­vi­sion of the CPA in re­la­tion to can­celling fixedterm con­tracts. They think they have gone out of their way to ac­com­mo­date SA con­sumers in their re­sponse to you. The only way for such sup­pli­ers to know and learn SA laws is when the con­sumers feel ag­grieved (enough) to come for­ward and com­plain.They will learn even­tu­ally.”

On Hello Peter, there are only com­plaints. One pointed out that, in their terms and con­di­tions, it states they will au­to­mat­i­cally re­new your sub­scrip­tion in­def­i­nitely.

“I signed up for a three­month pre­mium mem­ber­ship and paid in full, via credit card. I was very unim­pressed with the site and asked for a re­fund within the seven-day re­fund pe­riod. I’ve had no re­ply to my e-mails, but my pre­mium mem­ber­ship has now been re­moved. So they’ve kept my money and re­moved my mem­ber­ship. I have read other re­views that say that Elite keeps tak­ing money off credit cards, even after can­cel­la­tion, so I will be tak­ing steps to pre­vent this. Beware!!!”

On Face­book, a reader pointed out the can­cel­la­tion process is in two steps: Gra­ham*, who found love on one of th­ese dat­ing sites after hav­ing used EliteSin­gles, said: “You can­not just delete the app and think that’s the end of it. It’s not pos­si­ble to can­cel your sub­scrip­tion on EliteSin­gles.co.za; you have to log on to their site, www.EliteSin­gles.co.za

*Not their real names

Cat­fish­ing among pit­falls of hook­ing up on­line…

PIC­TURE: STEPHEN OS­MAN

SE­RIAL DATER: Jack Luizzi, 75, from Los An­ge­les, whose pro­file is shown on Match.com, has been dat­ing on­line for five years and says he has dated 50 women.

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