Spark Networks USA Inc., the parent company of niche dating sites Christian Mingle and Jdate, has agreed to pay a $500,000 fine and refund nearly $1 million to settle charges of automatically renewing credit card charges for subscriptions without customers’ consent.

The case was brought by Santa Monica City Attorney Lane Dilg; that office also recently settled similar cases with dating website eHarmony and exercise video and supplement company Beachbody. Dilg’s office served as lead counsel for the prosecution task force that also included district attorneys from Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties.

The task force alleged Spark Networks’ dating sites were automatically renewing customers’ annual subscriptions without express written consent as required by federal and state law.

“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 in a statement. “Consumers always have the right to know where their money is going.”

According to the statement, Spark Networks “cooperated with the task force to reach a resolution.”

Spark Networks, which is based in Germany with offices in Los Angeles, New York and Utah, released a statement following the announcement: "We have cooperated with the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office for the last three years and are happy to bring this matter to a positive resolution. We acquired the Jdate and Christian Mingle brands nearly a year ago, and are committed to ensuring all of our brands comply with consumer protection laws.’’

That resolution, entered as a formal judgment against Sparks Networks, requires Jdate, Christian Mingle, and all of Spark’s other dating sites to have full transparency with consumers about automatically-renewing memberships. The company now must:

• 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 separate check-box is the key,” Radinsky said in the statement. “Otherwise, it’s confusing and consumers can’t properly consent. Companies have too many ways to hide the auto-renewal terms.”

In January 2018, a similar group of prosecutors that included the Santa Monica city attorney’s office, obtained a $2.2 million judgment against eHarmony, another prominent dating site, for automatic-renewal violations.

In August 2017, the city attorney’s office obtained a $3.6 million judgment against Beachbody, a seller of exercise videos, supplements, and weight-loss programs. That settlement included the first injunction in California to require the separate check-box to consumers’ consent.

See related story "Beachbody Agrees to Pay $3.6 Million to Settle Case Over Automatic Credit Card Renewals"

Economy, education, energy and transportation reporter Howard Fine can be reached at hfine@labusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @howardafine.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.