London: Internet dating firms are using the details of real people without their permission to create fake profiles designed to entice lonely customers into paying to find love.
Investigators also found some matchmaking sites were buying the personal data of members of the public to artificially boost the number of people who appeared to be using their services, thereby helping the sites attract more customers.
The details included those of Brad Pitt, Michael Caine and a member of the House of Lords.
The Information Commissioner’s Office has now pledged to look into the industry over concerns that it is breaching data protection law.
It acted after BBC Panorama investigators bought the data of 10,000 people from a company called Usdate, which has a sales office in Florida. The profiles included photographs and lists of names, email addresses, dates of birth and sexual orientation.
Some contact details were clearly fake, featuring pictures of stars such as movie stars Pitt and Caine.
But others in the batch were real, including the email addresses of the life peer, academics and BBC staff. All denied using a dating website.
Simon Entwisle, director of operations at the Information Commissioner’s Office, said: “It’s appalling that people’s photographs are being used against a completely different set of personal details.
“What concerns me more than anything is the scale of this. It’s not just an odd incident, it seems to me to be a matter of course and routine. And that gives me even greater cause for concern.”
The Usdate website boasts: “It has never been easier to buy dating profiles. Having more people on your dating site gives your users more choice so they buy more and longer memberships. Simple!! So stop waiting for new users to “trickle in” every day. Instead, become clever and populate your dating website with 1,000,000 new dating profiles and your business will soar.’
The internet dating industry is thought to be worth £2.5 billion (Dh14.1 billion) a year worldwide and there are an estimated 1,500 online dating websites in the UK alone. Some 5.7 million people in Britain used matchmaking sites last year.
Panorama launched its investigation after complaints from customers who went on to sites as free users and attracted a lot of interest from potential dates. They then paid for subscriptions to gain access to contact details, only to discover that interest in their profiles rapidly tailed off.
Investigators spoke to whistleblowers who admitted creating fake accounts to lure in potential customers.
Ryan Pitcher worked for Global Personals, Britain’s third largest dating company, which runs more than 10,000 dating sites worldwide. He said he ran a team who created fake profiles or ‘pseudos’ to con customers into thinking they were talking to other genuine online daters. He added: “We’d steal someone’s identity through say MySpace or something, we’d take someone from a totally different country — Spain or wherever.
“We’d take the person’s photos online and we’d start knocking out messages. It was all fake and under the pretence that it was real.
“If you didn’t have pseudo profiling and fake messaging you wouldn’t make any money.”
Global Personals has previously insisted it had stopped using pseudo profiles.
Edgars Apalais, the owner of Usdate, denied any profiles sold by his firm were fake and said the information sold to Panorama belonged to people who had consented to it to be passed on.