So you're looking for love, just like millions of other Australians. But where exactly should you be looking? Do free online dating sites offer a good service at the right price? Or should you stump up the cash for paid online dating sites instead? And how safe is online dating anyway?

Our investigation into popular online dating sites, including RSVP, eHarmony, Oasis Active, Plenty of Fish, Zoosk and OkCupid, and popular app Tinder, has found that scams are rife, and some privacy policies and terms and conditions are riddled with disturbing provisions.

Watch out for online dating site scams

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has been investigating online scammers who use dating sites and romance services as a feeding ground. In 2013 alone, Australians lost $25.3 million to these shysters.

The ACCC reports that they've received 2770 complaints, with more than 400 people saying they'd lost in excess of $10,000. In fact, 64 people reported losing more than $100,000. And shockingly, 43% of people who came into contact with dating and romance scams lost money – one of the highest conversion rates of scams reported to the ACCC.

Popular scams include convincing users to part with their personal details or money, which is often sent overseas and is unrecoverable.

"Scammers go to great lengths to gain your trust, spending months and even years building a relationship with you. Once your defences are lowered, they spin an elaborate tale about how they need your financial help with a crisis, such as being ill or stranded, and ask for money," says ACCC Deputy Chair Delia Rickard.

"These scams can also pose a risk to your personal safety, as scammers are often part of international criminal networks. Scammers have lured unwitting Australian victims overseas, putting people in dangerous situations that can have tragic consequences."

Is online dating safe?

Internet dating can be a great way to meet new people – and possibly find 'the one' – but it's important to keep your wits about you and protect your own privacy and safety, first and foremost.

Top 4 signs you're dealing with a scammer on an online dating site

  1. You've never met or seen them: scammers will say anything to avoid a face-to-face meeting.
  2. They're not who they appear to be: scammers steal photos and profiles from real people to create an appealing facade. Run a Google image search on photos, and search words in their description to check if they're the real deal.
  3. You don't know a lot about them: scammers are keen to get to know you as much as possible, but are less forthcoming about themselves
  4. They ask you for money: once the connection's been made – be it as a friend, admirer or business partner – scammers will ask you to transfer money. Don't fall for a tall tale, no matter how plausible it sounds.

How to stay safe on online dating sites

Before you sign up for an online dating service, consider the following:

  • Read terms and conditions so you know what you're signing up to and how much it will cost.
  • Check your options for cancelling the contract.
  • Set reminders in your phone or diary to cancel your subscription to avoid inadvertently rolling over for a further term.
  • Research the business: conduct an internet search on the name of the company and verify any contact details.
  • Create a separate email address for online dating.
  • Never include personal information such as your real name, workplace, work or home address, phone number or birthday, in your profile.
  • Do a reverse Google image search on photos of profiles to check for authenticity.
  • When you meet somebody for the first time, pick a public place, tell a friend where you're going and keep the first meeting brief and inexpensive, such as grabbing a cup of coffee.
  • Don't let somebody new pick you up or drop you at your home.
  • Never send money to someone you've only ever contacted online or over the phone.

Which online dating site is for me?

We've reviewed websites RSVP, eHarmony, Oasis Active, OkCupid, Plenty of Fish and Zoosk, and app Tinder to help you single out which kind of site is most likely to suit you.

RSVP

Australian members

Two million.

Who uses RSVP?

RSVP has a slightly younger slant to its membership, with 48% aged between 26 and 40, and only 34% aged between 41 and 60; roughly 50/50 female and male.

How much does RSVP cost?

RSVP has three types of memberships: free, paid and RSViP (premium).

  • Free – Members who sign up for free can view profiles, see the last four people who viewed their profile, and send and accept virtual kisses, which are expressions of interest.
  • Paid – To email others you need to buy stamps. Stamps cost between $5 and $15 each, depending on the quantity bought and expiry period (one to 12 months). A stamp allows unlimited free contact for 30 days between two members.
  • RSViP – Priority (from $6.65 to $14.90 per month, depending on the length of membership) and Private (from $9.99 to $29.90 per month). Both allow members to access compatibility scores and reports, see all members who viewed their profile in the past 21 days, and have non-expiring stamps as well as more emailing options. RSViP Priority members are highlighted and appear at the top of search results, while RSViP Private members have the option to keep hidden until they choose to allow others to view their profile.

How does RSVP match users?

Free users enter the gender, age range and location of those they're looking for and can view the results immediately, but don't get any hints as to whether they're compatible. Paying members get access to compatibility data, and so may have a better shot at a good match.

Privacy

Signing up to an RSVP account and agreeing to its privacy terms and conditions in effect grants permission for your personal information, including photos and email addresses, to be used for "any purpose", which may include advertising or transmission to a third party. While all sites we looked at track your activities using cookies, RSVP even shows other users how often you're on the site and who you're looking at.

eHarmony

Australian members

More than a million, according to an eHarmony spokesperson.

Who uses eHarmony?

Most members are aged in their 20s and 30s, but it also caters to a large number of older users; about 51% men and 49% women.

How much does eHarmony cost?

eHarmony has three types of memberships: free, Basic and Total Connect. The prices below don't include special offers.

  • Free – Users receive a personal profile, view daily matches and have limited interaction with their matches, like sending a smile or a limited number of set questions.
  • Basic – $13.95 a month for a 24-month membership, $19.95 for 12 months, $44.95 for six months, or $64.95 for a one-month subscription. Members can request and view photos of matches, see who has viewed their profile and when their matches last logged in, and communicate with confirmed matches. 
  • Total Connect – $17.95 a month for 24 months, $19.95 a month for 12 months, $45.95 a month for six months, or $64.95 for a one-month subscription. Members get all the basic plan features and are able to phone their matches without revealing their phone number via a service called Secure Call. They also get a deeper personality analysis. 

How eHarmony matches users

eHarmony's selling point is its tailored approach to finding love online. New users fill out a detailed questionnaire in which they rate their own appearance and personality as well as nominate important features in a relationship and partner. The answers form their personality profile, which is then used to find matches using the so-called "29 dimensions of compatibility".

Privacy

By posting information and photos on a profile page or any public area of the eHarmony website, users automatically agree to have that information perpetually owned and used by eHarmony for purposes such as advertising. Users' contact details may be shared with third parties for advertising, but opting out is possible by changing certain settings or notifying eHarmony of your request in writing.

Pricing issues

eHarmony doesn't disclose the price of its plans until after you've filled out their onerous survey, by which point you may have invested hours. Furthermore, the company offers 24-month memberships, which could appeal to bargain-hunting users but lock users in for an extended period of time. The question to ask is: if I'm still using the site 24 months later, has it been worth the (not insignificant) fees charged?

Oasis Active

Australian members

About 1.6 million. 

Who uses Oasis Active?

It's got a younger slant with 64% of users aged between 18 and 35, while 27% are aged between 36 and 50; roughly 60% of members are male and 40% female.

How much does Oasis Active cost?

Oasis Active is free to use.

How Oasis Active matches users

Signed-up users describe their personality, interests and hobbies and select criteria for their ideal partner. They can then search for suitable matches. A spokesperson says all profiles and pictures are manually checked to ensure information provided is accurate. 

Privacy

By signing up, users agree that all profile information – including photos – is public, and so automatically grant an irrevocable and ongoing licence for the company to use and distribute any information posted or transmitted on the site. In effect, this means users' photos, aliases and other personal details can be used in advertising, online and off, although it's possible to opt out of this by updating privacy options in the account settings portal on the website. Email addresses, photos and information may also be shared with third parties for marketing purposes on behalf of Oasis Active.

OkCupid

Australian members

Figures not available.

How much does OkCupid cost?

OkCupid has free and paid A-list memberships.

  • Free – Free users can look at profiles and photos and contact other members.
  • A-list – $5.31 per month for six months, $8.52 per month for three months, $10.67 per month paid by the month. A-list members can access the site ad-free, change their user name, get additional match search options and photo album options, filter out messages by length, specific words or attractiveness, get message read receipts, see the full list of people who like them, and have more space and options in their messaging inbox as well as better anonymity settings.

How OkCupid matches users

OkCupid claims to use a math-based matching system to help users find partners. After completing a basic profile, users can elect to fill out hundreds of optional broad-reaching questions – like if they'd date a messy person, whether they like dogs, or even how often they brush their teeth. Potential matches are then rated based on a percentage for being a match, a friend or an enemy. Users can then flick through quick matches or browse all potential matches based on search criteria including gender, age and distance.

Privacy

OkCupid may use contact information for advertising purposes and compiling its OkTrends blog, which tracks and charts user behaviour. They may also share this information with third parties. OkCupid allows information posted on its site to appear in search engine results.

Plenty of Fish (PoF)

Australian members

Information could not be provided.

Who uses Plenty of Fish?

The site skews slightly towards more male users, with the average age of users being 32.

How much does Plenty of Fish cost?

Plenty of Fish has free and paid memberships.

  • Free: A free membership allows users to post up to eight photos, communicate, view others' photos, and use most features of the site.
  • Paid: You can upgrade your membership for additional features such as the ability to upload up to 16 images, unlock any user's extended profile, see if your emails were read or deleted, find out when someone viewed your profile, go ad-free, and appear first in search results. You can upgrade for $10.18 per month on an eight month plan, $12.75 a month on a four month plan, and $19.35 per month on a two month plan. Bear in mind that unless you specifically opt out, subscriptions automatically renew.

How Plenty of Fish matches users

Upon signing up with PoF, you fill out a profile listing your preferences for a potential significant other, and can choose to fill out a so-called "Relationship Chemistry Predictor". PoF then sends you a report based on your survey responses, and uses the data to match you to others on the site.

Privacy

PoF says it may share your personal information with affiliates and third parties acting on their behalf in the "normal course of business", though they do say they won't sell it to others.

Tinder

Australian members 

Specific stats aren't given about the number of Australian users, but Australia is Tinder's third largest market, after the US and UK.

Who's on it?

Tinder has a 55% male to 45% female user base. It skews younger, with 50% of users aged 18-24, 34% aged 25-34, and 8% aged 35-44.

How much does Tinder cost?

Tinder is entirely free, without any premium paid memberships.

How Tinder matches users

Tinder is an app-based online dating service designed for use on your phone or tablet device. To use the app, you must sign up with your Facebook account, which then forms the basis of your Tinder profile. According to Tinder, this is to ensure matches are made with real people who share interests and common friends. That being said, Tinder doesn't post to your Facebook profile, so if you're concerned about friends getting updates about your use of the site, at least on this point, you can rest easy.

Here's how it works: You pick the gender or genders you're interested in, what age range you're looking for, and how close in distance you'd like a potential match to be. Tinder then uses the GPS on your mobile phone to search for nearby users of the app. Once the app locates users nearby, it shows you their first name, age and a profile picture. You swipe right if you'd like to be matched with them, left if you're not interested. If both parties swipe right, you're a match, meaning you can start interacting with them.

According to a spokesperson, Tinder is designed to provide more than a dating service: "The purpose of Tinder is social discovery. All we are doing is facilitating an introduction between two people who are interested in getting to know each other better. Our users are leveraging Tinder to form relationships in the context of friendship, dating, getting recommendations from locals while traveling and even business networking."

Privacy

Privacy is a significant concern when it comes to Tinder, as users sign up with their Facebook profile, meaning the company has access to a large amount of personal information, including your email address, likes, birthday, education history, interests, current city, personal description, your friends list, and photos of you and your Facebook friends who might be common with other users. Tinder also gives itself access to the content of your chats when you're using the app, and uses this information to market itself and third party products or services. You can't delete your Tinder account, only the app. This means your virtual Tinder footprint could exist in perpetuity.

Zoosk

Australian members

Zoosk has approximately 13.5 million members outside of the US, though a spokesperson couldn't tell CHOICE how many were Australian.

Who's on it?

With a roughly 50/50 split between men and women, members are typically aged in their late 20s and early 30s.

How much does Zoosk cost?

Zoosk offers free and paid memberships, and a pay-as-you-go system using "Zoosk Coins".

  • Free: Free members can create a profile, search for singles, and send introductory winks and messages.
  • Paid: Memberships cost $12.49 per month on a six month membership, $19.98 per month on a three month membership or $29.95 a month paid monthly. Memberships auto-renew unless you cancel your membership before it expires. With a paid membership, you can send and receive messages and winks, chat with connections, see profiles of those who have viewed yours, and get full access to Smartpick, Zoosk's matching services.
  • Zoosk Coins: You can also earn or buy Zoosk "Coins", which unlock your matches, allow you to send virtual gifts, boost your profile, and allow you to get delivery confirmations on emails, among other features. Coins cost $19.95 for 180, up to $99.95 for 1800 coins. Coins can be earned by using or signing up to various third party apps, surveys, services and websites.

How Zoosk matches users

To sign up to Zoosk you fill out a profile, which you can do by signing up with Facebook, and then can choose to fill out an extensive compatibility survey. You can meet singles using three methods: by searching for them, using the "Carousel" (which works similarly to Tinder) or using SmartPick (which evaluates compatibility between Zoosk members and makes match recommendations). Zoosk claims to learn from your actions as you use the site, therefore making more suitable matches as you use the site more.

Zoosk offers a photo verification service for those who access the service using their iPhone or iPad app. It allows users to verify that their photo is an accurate representation of their looks by taking a short film visible to Zoosk moderators. If the moderators agree that you look like your photo, you get a verified logo on your profile picture.

Privacy

If you sign up to Zoosk and give the site access to one of your social media profiles, such as Twitter or Facebook, they may make posts on your behalf on that platform. Think twice about giving Zoosk access to your address book – they keep your contacts on file and may later use your information to suggest friends and connections to other members. By signing up to Zoosk, you grant permission for all your user content to be used for purposes including advertising or transmission to a third party.

Online dating case studies

We asked a range of people about their experiences with online dating.

The good

User/s: Belinda and David

Site: RSVP

Verdict: Recommended. "We've introduced many friends to RSVP."

  • Sites used: RSVP (on which they met), Lavalife, several others
  • Length dating online? Belinda – 18 months, David – six months
  • Success? They married
  • How many people did they date before they met the right person? Belinda – "hundreds", David – "a few girls"

Belinda, a 31-year-old jazz singer and David, a 32-year-old police officer had used several online dating sites when they met on RSVP. Two years later, they're married and expecting their first child.

"I felt online dating was the safest way to date because I was in control," says Belinda. "Even when I met a couple of scary guys, it was in a neutral place and they just had my mobile number. I had dates with doctors, lawyers, a millionaire, but I had no feelings for them apart from friendship. I knew the moment I saw David: 'This is the one'. I'd never had that before."

David agrees: "I chose online dating for the variety of people I could meet. I was looking for a partner and I looked for that in other people's profiles."


The bad

User/s: Roxanne*

Site: RSVP

Verdict: "I wouldn't dissuade people from it but I wouldn't recommend it either. It can be the lazy person's way to date."

  • Sites used: RSVP
  • Length dating online? Four months
  • Success? A few brief relationships
  • Why did she stop? Wasn't meeting people interested in working on relationships
  • How many dates before stopping online dating? "A few."

Roxanne, a 40-year-old production manager, began dating online as a way to meet a wider variety of people, rather than just those working in her industry. She has now given up on online dating.

"It's a bit too easy, so if they're going out with someone and it's not particularly working they can just go back online and start looking again. If you're permanently on the site you can get out of the practice of flirting with people just normally."


The neutral

User/s: Michael*

Site: RSVP and Lavalife

Verdict: "Online dating is worth a try, but it depends on your personality and whether you're willing to put in effort."

  • Sites used: RSVP and Lavalife
  • Length dating online? Two years
  • Success? Made a good friend and had one relationship
  • How many dates before stopping online dating? About 12 women, before meeting his girlfriend at work

Michael, a 31-year-old customer service manager, began dating online as a way of meeting people when he moved to a new city.

"Having too much emotional investment and hope can be rather futile," he says. "I also found men have to be proactive and send the kisses and the emails – I was on a site for a year before I received a response from a woman that wasn't solicited by me."

* Not their real name