What they find is a plethora of online dating sites that promise romance, true love and joy.

What they find is a plethora of online dating sites that promise romance, true love and joy.

What they find is a plethora of online dating sites that promise romance, true love and fun.

Online dating services are flourishing businesses, and the boomers who are joining them are doing so in big numbers. People aged 50 and older represent 25 percent of membership on the popular dating site Match.com — a 45 percent hop in the last five years, a spokesman said.

But not everyone who hopes to find a mate online is falling blissfully in love. There have been a rash of complaints against online dating sites, according to the Better Business Bureau. And there is a class activity lawsuit pending in the U.S. District Court that claims more than 60 percent of the profiles on Match.com are fraudulent — something Match.com spokesman Matthew Traub calls an “unfounded allegation in a money-seeking litigation.”

Then there is another, perhaps darker, side to the consumer complaints: People reporting that they were bilked out of money by those they connected with through an online dating site. The Better Business Bureau listed online dating sites among its top Ten scams for 2011, and one consumer advocacy group says its members have lost millions from online dating scams.

Is it a case of looking for love in all of the wrong places, or just a few bad apples in an otherwise blessed bushel? Truth is, many boomers often reach their 50s and older and find themselves uncoupled, either through death or divorce, they don’t know where to turn. Many haven’t been on the dating scene for decades and, feeling lonely and vulnerable, turn to their nearest computer for help. What they find is a plethora of online dating sites that promise romance, true love and joy. In some cases, legitimate romance blooms — and the hope of that happening seems to fuel the thriving memberships on these sites. But the number of complaints being made against them suggests that buyers should proceed cautiously, as the sites cannot promise safety from predators.

How does online dating work? Sites popular with boomers, like eHarmony.com, Match.com and OurTime.com (formerly called SeniorPeopleMeet.com), charge monthly fees that range from $35 to $60 (less if you sign up using a discount coupon or for numerous months). These sites, along with dozens of other smaller ones, permit you to post a profile of yourself and view the profiles of others. There is no attempt to verify the information someone posts — something the sites are generally upfront about.

Match.com does not do background checks and tells subscribers as much. The site has 100 investigators whose job it is to read and approve every profile before it’s posted, and there are checks for stolen credit cards. But the site is forthright about the fact that it does not conduct background checks, Traub said. It also attempts to educate its subscribers by plastering the site with cautions like “don’t wire money to anyone” and “once you go off-site, Match.com can no longer monitor the match,” he said.

Every online dating site has its own ways of letting people’s relationships develop — instant message, texting, ways to exchange more photos. It often progresses to off-site emailing and in-person meets, in which the site has no role. Despite Match.com’s efforts to educate its members about possible scammers, Traub said that “criminals thrive in every environment. You see them all over — Facebook, everywhere. There used to be mail scams.”

Jeffrey Norton, the lead attorney in the suit filed against Match.com and a lawyer at the Fresh York-based hard Newman Ferrara LLP, said he doesn’t think the sites go far enough to protect its subscribers, citing the growing volume of complaints.

One popular scam, Norton said, is that a man will pose as someone from a woman’s hometown who is temporarily working on a government contract in Nigeria. An email relationship progresses, Norton said, and the woman anxiously awaits the man’s come back home. But just before his comeback date, he emails that he was robbed of his documents and money and needs $Five,000 to bribe the officials to leave the country. The woman obliges and loans him the money, only to learn later that she fell for an online scam.

None of this surprises Barb Sluppick, who runs a website called Romance Scams — the tagline of which is “Romance Scams offers Support, Education, and Healing For All Who Find Their Way Here.” The site presently has registered 17,323 members who have reported a combined $14 million loss to scammers. The site posts photos of the scam artists, who are both masculine and female.

Sluppick said she believes the toll is higher than the millions of dollars her members have lost, calling online dating scams “one of the most under-reported crimes out there.” The embarrassment of being duped and the unwillingness to admit vulnerability is what stops people from reporting the crime, Sluppick said.

“If you have an email address and want to be in a relationship, you can fall victim to this scam,” she said. “The fact that you are paying a dating site creates a false sense of security that the site is going to protect you from being taken.”

See our slideshow below for Ten tips from the Better Business Bureau to avoid getting ripped off in an online dating scam. Also see the movie of a 55-year-old widow who lost $500,000 in an online dating scam.

Related movie: Slew of Fish Messages

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