A Channel 4 News investigation reveals one of Britain's largest internet dating firms hired staff to trick customers into handing over more money - abusing their personal details in the process.

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Millions of people looking for love sign up for internet dating sites every year. They hand over intimate details about their lives in the expectation they will meet genuine daters. They also expect their personal information will be looked after. However this trust is often abused as our special investigation into one of Britain's biggest internet dating companies has found.

Global Personals is one of the UK's largest internet dating companies. Headquartered in Windsor it makes £40m a year, has 130 staff and runs 7,500 dating sites.

But most of its 2.2m customers have never heard of the company. That is because it runs dating websites on behalf of other companies. For example, if you use the dating section of the Evening Standard or the Independent, it's actually Global Personals you're signing up with.

It's called "white labelling" - a well-known company can launch a dating website with the company's branding all over it, but Global Personals runs the back end. When a customer subscribes to the brand's site, Global Personals takes a share of the money.

Industrial-scale deception

Two former employees of Global Personals have described to Channel 4 News how the company carried out industrial-scale deception to dupe innocent daters into parting with their cash.

Ryan Pitcher and Tom (not his real name - he does not want to be identified) were recruited to join Global Personals' 30-strong team of "pseudos" - a dedicated team of staff whose job it was to set up and run fake profiles on the company's network of sites.

The team members would scour social networking websites and steal people's photos to use on their fake profiles.

Ryan said: "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 were sent by the team.

Flirtatious messages

Global Personals tried hard to keep the practice a secret. New recruits had no idea what the role would involve until they started work, and were told not to discuss the job with friends or family.

Tom 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."

Most innocent users had no idea that the flirtatious messages in their inbox came from a fake profile created by Global Personals.

The point of the "pseudo" team was to convince innocent daters to part with cash. A user can register on a Global Personals website for free. But to reply to messages they must pay a subscription - usually around £20 a month. The more messages the pseudo team sent from their fake profiles, the more likely innocent users would be to subscribe, or continue their monthly subscriptions.

'It's all about greed'

Ryan said: "You're talking about thousands of messages, which means millions of pounds in subscription fees. In today's world it's all about money, all about greed. With fake profiles you can get 50 per cent more revenue, sometimes even more. That's attractive no matter how immoral that may be."

"A lot of the people on the site aren't the most attractive people in the world. In the real world they weren't going to find a date, so they sign up online because they see the adverts.

"They start messaging and it doesn't always work for them. So if they're not getting replies from real people then after a month they're going to sign off. The pseudo team could string along a girl or guy for up to 24 months, and they pay membership fees every month."

Eventually some of the innocent targets would request a face to face meeting, at which point the Global Personals employee, via their fake profile, would give them a convenient brush-off, for example, telling the innocent daters they'd met someone, or were moving away.

Ryan said: "It's all about stringing them along on tenterhooks with that pretence that eventually they'll meet up, or just swap telephone numbers. But as soon as that comes into play you move on; you tell them you're not going to be on the dating site any longer. There were loads of cop-outs you could use."

Fake flirting

Sometimes, having given an innocent user a brush-off from one fake profile, the pseudo team member would then message them from a different fake account to continue the fake flirting.

"Most people were talking to more than one pseudo," said Ryan. "Some people were only talking to fake people."

"At first it was kind of fun - something fresh something new. It's not a normal job. But after a while you'd see the same people on the site, the same old men and women - widows, for example, who just want to find love. If they're just talking to pseudos they're not going to find it. You're just stringing them along to get money out of their pensions. That did play on my mind a little bit."

Trading Standards in Windsor said it has had "ongoing dealings" with Global Personals regarding the company's alleged use of fake profiles, claims that Trading Standards takes very seriously. Channel 4 News's evidence has now been shared to see whether it provides proof of offences under legislation such as the fraud act.

In a statement, Global Personals said: ""Global Personals was one of the first online dating companies to stop using fake profiles. For almost three years we have actively encouraged other online dating businesses to also stop this practice."

The company claims it stopped using fake profiles in 2008. Ryan and Tom told Channel 4 News the pseudo team was wound up in 2010.

The success of the company's pseudo team means it has built up a database of 2.2m people. It now makes this stock of profiles available to its network of sites. So if your profile is on the database, it will appear on every site on the Global Personals network, regardless of whether you want it there or not.

Q&A: online dating scam 
Channel 4 News producer Geoff White and correspondent Sarah Smith answer your questions on the #datingscam.

@hayleyphysics is it possible for these people to be prosecuted for fraud?
Geoff White: Trading Standards are looking into allegations-Fraud Act is a possibility

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Enzo Stenson Should I be cancelling my subscription?
Sarah Smith: Think about cancelling if you are getting strange messages from people you suspect might not be real. There are genuine members on these sites too

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@tammiall: how do u know that the person on the other end is really the person u talking to
Geoff White: Look out for generic msgs-esp those that don't include your name. Very difficult to spot fakers tho.
Sarah Smith: If it's a computer programme (bot) you are talking to it can be obvious. If it's a pseudo its impossible to tell who they really are

***

@m0ok Do hot girls make guys do really stupid things?
Geoff White: Fakers we interviewed had up to 20 profiles-men&women, old&young. And not all hot! Some "normal" pix
Sarah Smith: That's not a phenomena restricted to the internet! Sites used fake men as well as fake girls' profiles #datingscam

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@Artfor How many females use these dating agencies & hide their aggression? My brother was victim2nutter!
Sarah Smith: We investigated sites using fake profiles. Sites aren't responsible for what real members get up to

***

@akingstown What's wrong with meeting people in a normal way its going to end in tears
Geoff White: more&more of our communication is online - increasingly internet dating is "normal"!

Bizarre messages

For example, Channel 4 News spoke to Jenny Beard - she registered with justsingleparents.com, the UK's largest single parent dating website. She has a 10-year-old son and thought she was joining a community of like-minded single parents, as the site's name implies.

However, thanks to Global Personals' white labelling operation, her profile now appears on thousands of other websites - among them FHM, Loaded and Nuts magazine's "Hot Dates" section.

Jenny said: "It's quite shocking. I'm quite surprised that there's nothing I can do about what sites I'm on.

"Justsingleparents.com seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. I'd like to meet someone who understands the single parent world. I want to meet someone who has kids and understands what that life is like.

"I didn't expect to be on Nuts magazine's website. If I'd wanted to join that site I'd have joined it. I find it disconcerting and disingenuous that they don't explain it. It's very misleading but it may explain some of the bizarre messages you get."

Hard to keep track

Global Personals told Channel 4 News: "When members subscribe to one of our sites, they are advised in the terms and conditions that their details will be made available to members of different sites on the relevant shared database. We have a customer support team that can advise members which other sites their details may be seen on and who can advise accordingly."

But at any time, anyone can set up a new dating website using Global Personals service, and gain access to their stock of profiles. This makes it hard for users to keep a track on where their profile appears.

The Information Commissioner's Office is now investigating Global Personals profile-sharing practice.

Christopher Graham, the information commissioner, said: "On the face of it, it's a breach of first data protection principle. It's not fair processing. You've signed up for one thing and you suddenly get approached by people from different site. It's not fair and it's probably a breach of the law; we must investigate.

"We certainly want to put a stop to this practice."

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