SAN DIEGO–San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan said Monday that her office, along with the City Attorney of Santa Monica and the District Attorneys of Los Angeles, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties, have settled a consumer protection action against Spark Networks USA, LLC, which is the parent company of niche dating sites Jdate and Christian Mingle, among others.
The Los Angeles-based company has agreed to change its website and sales practices to better protect California consumers. Spark Networks will pay also $500,000 in civil penalties and up to $985,000 in refunds to customers whose subscriptions automatically renewed or who were denied refunds when requested.
The terms are part of a final court judgment negotiated with a task force of local prosecutors that also included the district attorneys of Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz Counties. The task force learned that Spark’s dating sites were automatically renewing customer payments, without their express prior consent as required by federal and state law, among other alleged violations of law.
“Consumers always have the right to know where their money is going and companies must comply with California’s laws in order to ensure that consumers understand certain transactions will renew automatically,” said District Attorney Summer Stephan. “This joint effort is a great example of how our Consumer Protection Unit works to protect people from unfair business practices in the marketplace and ensure that California’s consumer protection laws are followed.”
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.
Spark Networks cooperated with the task force to reach the resolution.
Online “subscriptions” and other automatically recurring charges have proliferated in the U.S. 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 these auto-renewals clear to consumers, and to get their “express, affirmative consent” – before they collect any money. However, many businesses still don’t follow this law.
The judgment was filed in Santa Monica Superior Court and the $500,000 in civil penalties will be shared equally among all agencies. The Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office acted as lead counsel for the People of the State of California on the case. Deputy District Attorney Steve Spinella worked on the case for the San Diego District Attorney’s Office.