Misrepresentation, catfishing, lousy matching, objectification and projection are just some of the psychological pitfalls of hooking up in the virtual world. Screengrab
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 fixed-term 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 three-month 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.

* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @askgeorgie

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