SANTA MONICA, CA – Spark Networks USA, LLC, the parent company of niche dating sites Jdate and Christian Mingle, will pay $500,000 in penalties and up to $985,000 in restitution to customers whose subscriptions automatically renewed or whose refunds were denied when they requested them, the City of Santa Monica press release said.

The company has agreed to change its website and sales practices to better protect California consumers, terms part of a final court judgment negotiated with a task force of local prosecutors that included Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office, which acted as lead counsel for the People of the State of California, along with 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,” the press release said.

The judgment requires all of Spark’s dating websites to have full transparency with consumers about automatically-renewing memberships. Spark Networks USA must now “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,” the City press release said.

The judgment was filed Monday morning in the Santa Monica Superior Court.

“Automatic renewal is one of the critical areas in consumer protection today,” Chief Deputy City Attorney Adam Radinsky, head of Santa Monica’s Consumer Protection Division, said. “Consumers always have the right to know where their money is going.”

Spark Networks cooperated with the task force to reach the resolution, the press release said. Online subscriptions and other automatically recurring charges have increased 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, the press release said. However, many businesses still don’t follow this law.

“This joint effort is an important victory to ensure that consumers will not be subject to recurring charges without their clear consent,” Santa Monica City Attorney Lane Dilg said.

This isn’t the first time the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office has gone after websites with unclear consumer consent. In January of this year, a similar group that included Dilg obtained a $2.2 million judgment against eHarmony for automatic renewal violations. In August 2017, Dilg obtained a $3.6 million judgment against Beachbody, one of the largest sellers of exercise videos, supplements, and weight-loss programs, which included the first injunction in California to require the separate check-box to consumers’ consent, the press release said.

“The separate check-box is the key. Otherwise, it’s confusing and consumers can’t properly consent,” Radinsky said. “Jdate and Christian Mingle now will have one of the best online disclosure and consent pages in the business.”

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