Match.com’s $10M ‘PR Opportunity?’

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Published January 25, 2013

| FOXBusiness

Match.com is the leader in the world of online dating, with those looking for love flocking to its services by the millions. But one Las Vegas woman claims she was nearly killed on a date she met through the site, and is suing Match.com for $10 million in damages.

Mary Kay Beckman went on several dates with Wade Ridley, who attacked her after she ended the relationship. In January 2011, Ridley stabbed Beckman dozens of times in the face, smashed her in the head with a rock, stomped on her face and fled, FOXNews.com reported.

Beckman’s attorney said the site’s terms of use don’t allow it to wash its hands of what happened to Beckman, and users are given a false sense of security while using its services.

Some argue Match.com is just the go-between, a stand-in for a friend that sets you up on a blind date, or the local bar where you meet a new potential interest randomly. If that blind date attacked you, or the person you met at the dive bar robbed you, would you sue your friend or the bar?

Enrico Schaefer, founding partner of Traverse Legal, said while the argument is valid, it won’t hold up.

“Match.com’s business is not to serve alcohol or have a place to hang out [like a bar],” Schaefer said. “It’s to match people with each other.”

In 2012, Match.com, eHarmony.com and Spark Networks, which owns JDate and ChristianMingle, agreed to take greater measures to protect consumers, including running checks against the National Sex Offender registry. Match.com currently does not conduct criminal background checks.

While the site’s terms of use aim to protect the site from ever being sued, Schaefer said that doesn’t mean a court will view that at face value. The terms are similar to an “adhesion contract,” he said, which gives users no other choice than to agree with it in order to use Match’s services.

“The court will look at whether the terms are reasonable or not, based on other factors on the site,” he said. “If Match.com is marketing that it’s a safe place for people to find their match, and essentially its software is serving up people for you to hook up with, other dating sites don’t have the same software. Match.com and eHarmony are the big dogs in the space—they are the most trustworthy, and that’s what they market themselves as.”

The way the site pairs up its users may trump its terms of use, Schaefer said. First-time lawsuits of this kind are often challenging for the plaintiff, he said, but Match, which according to owner IAC/Interactive (IACI), has 1.7 million paid core subscribers in 25 countries, may be seen as negligent for failing to conduct background checks.

IAC declined to comment, however Match.com issued a statement defending its safety, and pointing out it lists online and offline safety tips in multiple places on the site.

"What happened to Mary Kay Beckman is horrible, but this lawsuit is absurd. The many millions of people who have found love on Match.com and other online dating sites know how fulfilling it is. And while that doesn't make what happened in this case any less awful, this is about a sick, twisted individual with no prior criminal record, not an entire community of men and women looking to meet each other," Match.com said.

Match and the online dating industry both will likely walk away unscathed, according to Kerry Rice, senior analyst, Internet & Digital Media at Needham & Company. The attack will likely raise awareness among users, especially women. Rice said.

“It raises the visibility of being more aware of what’s going on online, who you are meeting and how to meet them,” he said. “It heightens awareness in the industry.”

But with an estimated 100 million singles in the U.S., and close to half of having tried online dating services, if the issue persists background checks may become a new standard, he said.

The court case may even open the door for new business opportunities for Match and its competitors, Schaefer and Rice said.

“For its business model, Match may decide for an additional fee to offer a background check,” he said. “If this gets to a jury, there may be an upset to the entire industry. If Match settles, others may sue then, too.”

Rice echoed that notion, but said the suit as it currently stands won’t hurt Match or its competitors.

“I don’t think it will slow down their subscriber growth,” he said. “It does present them the opportunity to say, ‘listen we will do a [criminal] background check, and no one else does,’ since they are the leader in the industry. This could be a good PR opportunity for them.”

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http://www.foxbusiness.com/industries/2013/01/25/matchcoms-10m-pr-opportunity/