SANTA MONICA—The dating websites owned by Spark Networks USA, LLC, including Christian Mingle and Jdate, were ordered to pay back up to $985,000 in restitution to customers whose subscriptions were automatically renewed or who were denied refunds when requested, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office announced on October 15.

A task force of local prosecutors including the District Attorney’s Office and led by the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office, found that the company’s dating sites were automatically renewing customer payments, without prior consent as required by federal and state law, among other alleged violations of law.

“Automatic renewal is one of the critical areas in consumer protection today,” said Chief Deputy City Attorney Adam Radinsky, head of Santa Monica’s Consumer Protection Division. “Consumers always have the right to know where their money is going.”

Under a judgement negotiated with Spark Networks and signed in Santa Monica Superior Court, the company was fined $500,000 in penalties and was ordered to have full transparency with consumers about automatically-renewing memberships. Jdate, Christian Mingle and their other dating sites 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 Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office is committed to protecting consumers from unfair and unlawful business practices,” said City Attorney Lane Dilg. “This joint effort is an important victory to ensure that consumers will not be subject to recurring charges without their clear consent.”

Online “subscriptions” and other automatically recurring charges come after “free trials,” where consumers have to cancel in time to avoid the charges.

Federal and state law requires businesses to make these auto-renewals clear to consumers, and to get their “express, affirmative consent” – before they collect any money.

The California Auto Renewal Task Force (CART) investigates businesses to look for violations of California and Federal statutes regulating auto renewal contracts. The members of CART also include the district attorneys of San Diego, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties.

In August 2017, the Santa Monica City Attorney obtained a $3.6 million judgment against Beachbody, one of the world’s largest sellers 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.

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

“Jdate and Christian Mingle now will have one of the best online disclosure and consent pages in the business.”