ZAPORIZHYA, Ukraine – Users of some of the world’s most
popular dating sites, run by an English company with offices in Ukraine,
suspect they are being scammed.

This is one of the findings of a recent BBC investigation into the firm,
Cupid plc, which runs a big network of dating sites. The Kyiv Post also
discovered that these accusations may have substance, at least when it
comes to Cupid’s operations in Ukraine.

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Surfers using the sites run by Edinburgh-based Cupid plc – which include cupid.com, flirt.com and benaughty.com – told the BBC they received flirtatious messages but failed to get dates. They said they had lots of messages when they signed up to the sites as free users, but when they paid up, interest rapidly tailed off.

The online acquaintance firm denies creating profiles simply to tempt clients. Cupid plc’s chairman, Bill Dobbie, told the BBC it had about 500 “staff profiles” on its websites – but he insisted they were used for moderating chat rooms and forums – and to root out scammers.

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The BBC spoke to 11 users of Cupid plc’s sites who expressed doubts about whether many of the “daters” they heard from are genuine.

Will from Berkshire, who asked to be identified only by his first name to avoid public embarrassment, registered with a Cupid website called datetheuk.com as a free member – and immediately found he was popular.

“It started with ‘winks’ and proceeded to chat messages – innocent messages. A very attractive woman purporting to live nearby messaged me, but I couldn’t respond unless I paid,” he told BBC. “So I joined up, but then the communications ceased. I did wonder if it was an automated response from the company to entice people like me to sign up.”

Cupid plc has three offices in Ukraine, all in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhya and Kharkiv. As of late January, its Zaporizhya branch was hiring local employees. One of the descriptions for the job title of “motivation manager” implied the work involved “communication with users of the sites of Cupid plc.” The main job requirements were command of English, German or French and ability to type fast.

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A Kyiv Post journalist went undercover using a fictitious name and was invited by Elizaveta, one of the Cupid plc recruiters, for a job interview to Zaporizhya on Jan. 28.

During the interview, it was explained that the job involved posing as a female user of the dating site and encouraging male users online to buy memberships.

A young woman who introduced herself as Svitlana conducted the interview. She described the job as the following: “Of course we fool people, but it is only to show them that there are real people on the website, so that they would not be disappointed and eventually find somebody real.”

According to Svitlana, the employee is supposed to communicate with customers for three days, “keeping them interested and thus buying a monthly membership.”

According to Svitlana, “motivation managers” work from home in three shifts – from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. then 4 p.m. until midnight, then until 8 a.m.:  “Different people are responsible for different countries, like the U.S., Australia and they have to adjust to the time zone when customers are online and can chat.”

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These “turbo girls” – as they are called — have two days off, either Saturday or Sunday and another  weekday, “because we work when clients are active.”

Svitlana also said that the pay is Hr 1,600 ($200) for the first trial month. After this it is about Hr 2,500 ($310). She explained that managers have to send “about 200” short messages to clients during the shift: “This is not as hard as it sounds and that after awhile one has clear sentences and templates in the head.”

She added that “we do have some technology to help us write that many messages,” but she did not elaborate.

Separately, a Kyiv Post journalist registered as a male from Ukraine at cupid.com, but received no emails. However, when registering from Belgium, using a local Internet protocol and posing as a Belgian male, the journalist immediately got three emails from two females nearby. Only the subject headings of their emails were available, all in English. To read the full message one must pay 4.47 euros ($5.83) for a three-day membership trial. The terms and conditions state that unless the member cancels membership during the trial period, the system automatically subscribes the person for the monthly membership of 27.99 euros.

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In comments to the BBC, Cupid representatives categorically denied that the company sent communications to tempt free members to buy subscriptions.  The company did not respond to a Kyiv Post request for comment on the policies of the company’s Zaporizhya branch. Meanwhile, Andrew, from Wales – who did not want his surname published to avoid public embarrassment – told the BBC that as a 57-year-old he was surprised when a number of young, attractive women contacted him via cupid.com.

When he checked their details, though, he discovered three of them claimed to be from the Swansea Enterprise Park, an industrial zone.

“I did start to wonder if they might be posted by the company to keep me interested,” Andrew said. “I felt there was something funny going on.”

Until these accusations, Cupid has been seen as a success story in London. The company boasts of building a base of more than 54 million members in 58 countries and generating revenues of $78 million in 2011.

It was floated on the AIM stock market in 2010 and in 2011 was named as Scotland’s fastest-growing technology business by the accountancy firm Deloitte.

The company says its web platform supports more than 84 million user accounts and has more than 800,000 users online each day. Its users live in 58 different countries, and its message system handles almost 200 million messages each day.

During the job interview in Zaporizhya, the Kyiv Post journalist got a test assignment. One task was to translate from English to Russian the following phrases: “Tall, dark and smart? Probably, but my friends also say that I am honest, polite and courteous. With a devilishly naughty tongue. I have managed to keep my body trim…”

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The second task was to translate complete sentences from Russian to English: “I believe that people meet ‘wrong’ persons in life on purpose, so that when they meet the right ones they would be grateful. Are you my Mr. Right?”

Kyiv Post staff writer Svitlana Tuchynska can be reached at [email protected].

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