In 1967, the Beatles famously sang that all you need is love. Today, we’re still searching for and finding love, although the ways in which we go about doing this have changed a little. Indeed, the rise of online dating websites reflects our increasingly digitalised world. If you fancy yourself Cupid and dream of starting an online dating website, you’re going to need more than love to operate. Below, we look at what you should consider when starting your online dating site and help you match your first couple in a manner that reflects best practice.

Online Dating Websites, Legal Obligations and Best Practice

Under Australia’s consumer law, online dating websites are service providers and as such, they must meet their obligations under the Australian Consumer Law (ACL) (Cth).

Also, the nature of online dating websites has seen international criminal networks use such sites with the express aim of committing financial fraud and identity theft. Consequently, you not only have to consider your legal obligations but also how to structure your website so that you can protect your users and minimise the risk of any illegal or harmful activity.

In 2015, for example, over 2600 Australians reported being the victims of online dating scams at a cost of nearly $23 million. It is, therefore, essential that you observe best industry practices at the outset. Implementing key policies and procedures will instil your users with confidence when they sign on, and protect your brand. Similarly, adhering to your legal obligations protects you against complaints, and disciplinary action brought by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

1. Best Practice

To assist online dating websites, the ACCC has recently released their Best Practice Guidelines for Dating Sites. Although they are not all legally binding, they provide a clear structure of how to adhere to best practice and focus on the following:

  • Providing appropriate scam warnings and information;
  • Implementing a robust vetting and checking system;
  • Having clearly defined procedures to handle complaints; and
  • Ensuring business practices protect consumers.

Be aware that making sure your practices protect consumers is a legal obligation for your business.

2. Scam Warnings and Information

These are necessary to inform and teach your users about associated risks. These messages should be clear, easy to understand and hard to miss. As well, they should be phrased and displayed so that they will impact on users. Examples include a sidebar, banner or link to more detailed information.

The warnings should be in more than one place on the website, especially at ‘points of decision’ – when scammers can contact users. Research shows that scammers most commonly target people in the 45 to 65-year-old demographic. Special warnings for these customers upon sign up are another good idea. Warnings should also dissuade users from moving to less secure communication channels, which have a lower capacity for detection.

3. Vetting and Checking System

All responsible online dating sites should validate users to ensure legitimate use of the service, and prevent against scammers easily setting up fake profiles.

Validation procedures includes collecting information from users that allow sites to authenticate an individual’s identity when they register. However, validation procedures are not in themselves sufficient. A rigorous vetting and checking system can help a site identify and block scammers both when they try to register and at any time afterwards.

Robust vetting and checking include monitoring language. Scammers commonly use the same usernames and passwords and their language typically contains a number of spelling and grammatical errors. Checking profile photographs and Internet Protocol addresses to identify people registering outside of Australia is also sensible. Scammers usually send and reply to an abnormal number of messages.

At all times, users’ personal information and privacy must be maintained. It is necessary to have in place robust security systems to prevent unauthorised access to a customer’s personal details. If a breach does occur, users should be notified immediately and provided with details about their compromised information. Encourage users to take steps to stop any further misuse of their information. For example, cancelling a credit card may be a good idea if this information was illegally accessed.

4. Complaint Handling

As mentioned above, no system and no website are ever foolproof. In that context, if a user has had a bad experience on your site, they must be able to lodge a complaint. Your site should respond promptly and refer clients where appropriate.

Sites should reply to a complaint as soon as possible and no later than the next business day. The site must then have a policy of actively investigating the fake profile or other offending behaviour and warning any other users in contact with that profile to control the damage. Keeping comprehensive data on customer complaints about scammers can also help you improve your security and prevent future scams.

Your site should also inform complainants of their entitlement to contact the ACCC Scamwatch website. If users have lost money, received threats or are subject to blackmail, you should encourage them to contact the police via the Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network.

5. Consumer Protection

As a business, you must honour all your obligations under the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 (Cth). If you fail to do so, the ACCC can take legal action against you.

Information on your site must be upfront and transparent, and your contract terms fair. The essential goal is to make it possible for your users to make an informed consumer decision.

Disclose applicable fees and charges and accept notices of termination via email. Further, personal information should not be used for other, unauthorised purposes. If a customer consents to the general Terms and Conditions of your site, that does not allow your site to use their personal information elsewhere or for any other purpose than has been stated in your Terms and Privacy Policy.

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If you have any questions about complying with Australia’s consumer law or how to mitigate against online scammers, get in touch with our consumer lawyers on 1300 544 755.

Carole Hemingway

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