All Is Not Fair In Love In CyberSpace

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Online dating is a huge industry now. So big that some claim it's a huge marketplace for fraud and scamming, which is prompting lawmakers to consider passing legislation to regulate more of these activities.

The incidence of would-be suitors being scammed out of money for plane tickets and other items is increasing, as is "date bait" e-mails from ficticious, flirtatious women used to entice people to renew their online memberships. Who's at fault if the cute Russian girl never shows up after you send her a few grand to fly to the states? You say you left your wife because you found your soulmate online... and you haven't met her in person yet? I'm sure you're doing the right thing, right?

They are widows and married millionaires and Yalies . They are Christian nonsmokers and truckers and Republicans . And they all want to date you. Well, maybe not you. But someone you could pretend to be, with a little imagination and a working laptop.

Everybody is blond and skinny in cyberspace. And that can be a problem. Just consider the number of marriages ending because one of the parties just met their one true love through Yahoo Personals. As one divorce lawyer recently told Lawyers USA: "A client will come in -- man or woman -- and say there's someone across the country I want to marry. When I ask them, 'Have you met at all?' the answer is, 'No, I just know this is my soul mate.' "

The biggest problem with Internet dating is the snake oil. There is, for starters, the guy in Atlantic City who just pleaded guilty to 10 counts of wire fraud for scamming women around the country with fake Internet profiles. He'd tell women he met online that he needed money to move to their area, then spend it at the roulette table. Then there's the Arizona man who shelled out $2,000 for plane tickets to fly in a Russian beauty who had written to him, breathlessly, "Every time, when I reading your letter, my mood become well and my heart is knocking so strong!" She never showed. Or the guy in Australia who defrauded a bunch of old people so he could transport his Internet "girlfriend" who was a "North American model" to Australia. He's in prison.

Lawsuits against Internet dating sites for the false statements of other customers have mostly gone nowhere, in part because Congress basically immunized such Web sites with the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which says providers can't be held liable for the lies of third parties. That makes some sense. Why shoot the messenger? But a new crop of suits is being pressed by disgruntled customers angry not about false claims by third parties, but about false third parties allegedly created by the companies.

Match.com is defending a lawsuit over "date bait" -- the creation of fake flirty e-mails to keep paying customers from canceling their accounts. And Yahoo Personals is defending a class-action suit accusing it of creating phony profiles to "generate interest, public trust and give the site a much more attractive and functional appearance." Both companies deny any wrongdoing.

Still, even in the wake of all the alleged fraud and abuse, efforts to regulate Web dating have been limited. In addition to that 1996 law, Congress last year passed "mail-order bride" legislation, which attempted to regulate the more than 200 mail-order bride services operating in the United States. The purpose of the act is to protect foreign women from being stalked, abused or held against their wishes. The law is already being challenged by angry wife-shoppers who believe they should not be forced to disclose personal details (including past marriages, children or alcohol-related offenses).

Beyond these federal efforts, a handful of states have also attempted to clamp down on fraud in Internet dating: New York has passed a consumer protection statute to regulate Web sites, and proposals are being weighed or have already passed in California, Florida, Michigan, Texas and Virginia that would force online dating sites to tell clients whether they perform criminal background checks on members. These laws wouldn't require background checks. They would just shame providers who don't perform them.

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