An investigation by Channel 4 News alleges that one of Britain's largest internet dating firms hired staff to con customers into handing over more money and, in the process, abusing their personal details.
Millions of people seeking romance sign up to internet dating sites every year. When handing over intimate details about their lives, they expect their personal information to be looked after. But the C4 investigation claims that with Global Personals, the opposite is the case.
One of the UK's largest internet dating companies, Global Personals makes £40m a year, has 130 staff and runs 7,500 dating sites.
However, most of the Windsor-based company's 2.2 million customers have never heard of the company because it runs dating websites on behalf of other companies such as the dating section of the Evening Standard or the Independent … a practice known as white labelling.
Two former Global Personals employees described how the company carried out deception on a massive scale to dupe innocent users into parting with their cash. They were recruited to join the company's 30-strong team of "pseudos" – a team set up specifically to run fake profiles on the company's network of sites. Team members would scour social networking websites and steal people's photos to use on their fake profiles. One employee told the programme: "You'd take Helga from Iceland and make her into Helen from Manchester and write a profile. You'd use her features and invent a whole new person."
Each team member would be running as many as 15 different personalities: old and young, male and female. They would use these fake profiles to send flirty messages to innocent users – as many as 400 messages an hour in total. New recruits were not told what the role would involve until they started work, but were told to never discuss the job with friends or family.
The other employee said: "On our first day we were taken into a room and given a pack explaining the role. I had reservations. Morally I didn't think it was acceptable, but I'd just arrived in a new role and I'd worked my notice in my last job so it was get on with it or be unemployed."
Registration on a Global Personals website is free of charge, but there is a typical charge of around £20 a month to reply to messages. The more messages from the fake profiles, the more likely innocent users would be to subscribe and continue to do so. Most had no idea that the messages were from the fake profiles.
Windsor Trading Standards says it has had "ongoing dealings" with Global Personals regarding the company's alleged use of fake profiles. C4 News's evidence has now been shared to see whether it provides proof of offences under legislation such as the fraud act.