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Slate's Jurisprudence: The Laws of Internet Dating

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Okay, from the sex drive to the C drive and Internet dating. There have been lots of stories about people who've been defrauded by their online paramours, even a couple of Internet dating sites are in trouble for alleged false advertising.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Slate.com's legal analyst Dahlia Lithwick is here to talk about these cases and why there aren't more laws protecting us from online lotharios. Hi, Dahlia.

Ms. DAHLIA LITHWICK (Legal Analyst): Hi, Madeleine.

BRAND: Well, let's talk about these fraud cases. Tell us about them.

Ms. LITHWICK: There's so many and each of them is sort of heartbreaking, but you know, there's the guy in Atlantic City who kept scamming women he met online and would send them love letters and tell them to spend money so he could move to be near them and then he would gamble it away at the casinos. He just got, actually, indicted for wire fraud.

There's the poor guy in Arizona, who sent heaps of his money to some Russian goddess that he met online. She, needless to say, never showed. The stories are just inevitably these poor people who send all their money over to bring someone from a foreign country who never shows up.

And there are many of them, and many more every day.

BRAND: Well, those seem sad, but kind of predictable. But what about, what about institutionalized fraud? There are some accusations against these Web sites that actually promote dating.

Ms. LITHWICK: That's right, Madeleine. Both Match.com and YahooPersonals are facing big lawsuits. Match.com stands accused of quote "date bait," which is making up fake emails from sexy potential partners to lure back customers whose accounts are about to expire with Match.com. They're also accused, hilariously, of sending their own employees out on dates, posing as people that one might meet on Match.com.

YahooPersonals is accused of creating phony profiles and putting them up on the site to sort of make their clientele look a little sexier. I'll add that Match.com and YahooPersonals both deny all these allegations.

BRAND: Well, Congress and a number of states are stepping in now to try to regulate some of this. And what are they trying to do, and are they having any success?

Ms. LITHWICK: Interestingly, they're really just doing very little regulation around the margins. Congress passed the Communications Decency Act of 1996, but that basically immunizes these Web sites from lies that are posted by their users. And then last year Congress passed the quote "Mail Order Bride Business Act." That's supposed to regulate the 200-plus mail order bride sites that operate in this country. But again, they largely protect the foreign brides. They don't do much to protect the buyer, if you will. And so a lot of men are actually very agitated because the act forces them to disclose a lot of information that they feel is private.

So it's not really helping them against the fraud as much as they might like.

BRAND: Well, do they really want to be helped?

Ms. LITHWICK: One of the things that's interesting is there is so little regulation, a handful of states have also passed very, very minimal regulation. But overwhelmingly, this is just not an industry that's being regulated. And I think it's because the sites themselves don't want to be regulated, and the consumers don't particularly want regulation. Most of the people who use online dating are fully aware of the fact that they don't want Big Brother breathing down their necks and forcing them to be truthful.

There's a whole world of sort of fantasy and illusion out there that makes dating full of lies to begin with and probably even more so when you're online, and I think people kind of like it that way.

BRAND: The always-truthful Dahlia Lithwick, opinion and analysis from her. She's the legal analyst for the online magazine Slate and for us here at DAY TO DAY.

We won't dump you. DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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