The parent company of niche dating sites, including Christian Mingle and Jdate, agreed to pay $500,000 in penalties and nearly $1 million in refunds to customers whose subscriptions were automatically renewed to settle a consumer protection action brought by the Santa Monica City Attorney and Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, among other prosecuting agencies, it was announced Monday.
The judgment filed in Santa Monica Superior Court will be shared equally among a task force of California prosecutors led by the city attorney of Santa Monica that also includes district attorneys from San Diego, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties.
The dating sites for Spark Networks USA, LLC, were automatically renewing customer payments without their express prior consent as required by federal and state law, among other alleged violations of law, according to the task force.
“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.”
In addition to paying customers who file claims $25 each, 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.
“Jdate and Christian Mingle now will have one of the best online disclosure and consent pages in the business,” Radinsky said.
Spark Networks cooperated with the task force to reach the resolution.
According to prosecutors, online “subscriptions” and other automatically recurring charges have proliferated in the United States 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 auto-renewals clear to consumers, and to get their “express, affirmative consent” before collecting any money. The California Auto Renewal Task Force investigates violations, however, many businesses still don’t follow the law, prosecutors said.
In January, 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, which sells exercise videos, supplements and weight-loss programs. That settlement included the first injunction in California to require the separate check-box to record consumers’ consent, an element Radinsky said is key to avoiding confusion.
Santa Monica City Attorney Lane Dilg said her office “is committed to protecting consumers from unfair and unlawful business practices. This joint effort is an important victory to ensure that consumers will not be subject to recurring charges without their clear consent.”