The ACCC has today commenced proceedings in the Federal Court against dating site eHarmony Inc, alleging it breached the Australian Consumer Law by making misleading statements about the pricing, renewal and duration of its memberships.
The ACCC’s case relates to alleged misleading representations by eHarmony, including in relation to statements that it offered ‘free dating’, the automatic renewal of memberships, the failure to display accurate prices, and statements about ‘one month’ memberships and early cancellation options.
The allegations relate to conduct dating back to at least November 2019, and the ACCC alleges that most of it is ongoing.
“Dating apps provide important services that are used by many Australians to meet new people and make connections, and they have become an intrinsic part of many people’s social lives. These are personal services, and consumers may bring a different state of mind to these interactions than a commercial one. In addition, some consumers who use these apps may be more at risk from misleading or manipulative selling practices than they would be in other, less personal transactions,” ACCC Chair Gina Cass-Gottlieb said.
“The ACCC has received hundreds of complaints from consumers about eHarmony and its memberships.”
“We allege that eHarmony deprived consumers of the chance to make an informed choice about whether to join this dating service and how much to spend in doing so,” Ms Cass-Gottlieb said.
Automatic membership renewal allegedly a subscription trap
The ACCC alleges eHarmony engaged in misleading conduct when customers signed up to paid premium memberships, which may have given consumers the false impression that the subscription period for its premium membership was only for an initial 6, 12 or 24 months, when in fact the subscription automatically renewed, in some cases at prices hundreds of dollars higher than the initial subscription.
eHarmony did not prominently disclose the automatic renewal, instead displaying the terms of the automatic renewal in small font late in the purchase process and in its terms and conditions.
“We allege that as a result of eHarmony’s conduct, consumers may have thought they committed to a plan of 6, 12 or 24 months when in reality the plan was longer because it automatically renewed, in some cases at a much higher price,” Ms Cass-Gottlieb said.
“The ACCC is concerned about the issue of subscription traps in digital services. We remind digital platforms of the need to be clear with consumers about renewals and cancellations."
“Advertising and marketing practices in the digital economy are among the ACCC’s current compliance and enforcement priorities,” Ms Cass-Gottlieb said.
eHarmony’s basic membership advertised ‘free dating’
The ACCC alleges eHarmony represented to consumers joining up with eHarmony that they could engage in ongoing two-way communication with other people for free, when in fact free 'basic' memberships did not allow members to engage in this way.
Adult consumers could register for eHarmony’s free, 'basic membership' after completing an 80 question ‘compatibility quiz’.
Basic membership only allowed members to see blurred, unrecognisable profile photos of other members. Consumers on basic membership were not able to have ongoing communication with other members and could only ‘like’ other profiles, receive and send a single reply to one text message from a ‘premium member’, send one virtual smiley face symbol and use the ‘icebreaker’ feature.
Consumers had to upgrade to a paid 'premium' membership subscription, offered for 6, 12 or 24 months, to send text messages to members, read all messages from other members, or view unblurred profile photos. Basic membership did not enable consumers to engage in ongoing communication with other members seeking to date.
“eHarmony’s free basic membership had limited functionality which, we allege, did not allow members to engage in ‘free’ dating with other members, as advertised, but required them to upgrade to a paid premium membership before being able to date,” Ms Cass-Gottlieb said.
Alleged failure to display accurate minimum and total price
The ACCC alleges eHarmony failed to display accurate minimum and total prices during the purchase process. It allegedly advertised an incorrect minimum monthly price as ‘from $xx/month’ which did not include a mandatory additional fee that applied if consumers wanted to pay for their membership on a monthly basis.
It is also alleged eHarmony failed to prominently disclose the minimum total price as required by law.
eHarmony’s display of prices did not allow consumers to see the minimum total price they had to pay for a subscription until late in the purchase process, where it was disclosed in small font. In addition, consumers who paid monthly were charged $3 more per month than the price eHarmony advertised.
Statements about one month memberships and cancellations
The ACCC also alleges eHarmony misled consumers about their ability to cancel subscriptions.
The ACCC alleges that, for a period of more than three and a half years from September 2019, some pages of the eHarmony website included statements to the effect that consumers could subscribe to a premium membership for one month, which was not the case. During that period, memberships were available only for 6, 12 and 24 months and included automatic renewal.
In addition, for at least two years from August 2019, eHarmony allegedly falsely represented consumers could cancel their membership after signing up, by stating on its website “there is still an opportunity to withdraw after signing up if you have second thoughts”, under the heading “Try before you buy – and no pressure to sign up”.
“Consumers who were considering whether to purchase a premium membership may have been more willing to do so because they thought there was an opportunity to cancel after sign up, or that memberships were cheaper and shorter than they in fact were,” Ms Cass-Gottlieb said.
eHarmony aware of the need for transparency
In 2016, the ACCC consulted eHarmony and others when developing its Best practice guidelines for dating websites, which refer to the importance of dating sites providing consumers with upfront and transparent information so consumers can make informed decisions.
“We are disappointed to have to take this action, especially since eHarmony should have been well and truly on notice about the need to provide consumers with clear and accurate information about their dating services,” Ms Cass-Gottlieb said.
The ACCC is seeking penalties and declarations, as well as injunctions, consumer redress, costs and other orders.
The ACCC is asking consumers who experienced problems exiting an eHarmony subscription, or who paid more than advertised for an eHarmony subscription, to contact its Infocentre via this contact form.
eHarmony Inc, a US-based company, provides dating services in Australia through the eHarmony website and app. The main function of the Australian subsidiary of eHarmony is to receive payments from Australian consumers. eHarmony is part of the German-American ParshipMeet Group.
The document contains the ACCC’s initiating court documents in relation to this matter. We will not be uploading further documents in the event these initial documents are subsequently amended.
A page from eHarmony’s website, below, shows examples of its ‘free dating’ statements