An Australian dating agency has cheated dozens of outback farmers, promising to put them in touch with attractive young girls.
Under the slogan "Bringing the country together", the Queensland-based Rural Network milked men for thousands of dollars, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) alleges.
AdvertisementSome fell in love with women who did not exist. Others lost up to A$20,000 (£9,500) as the agency tempted them into parting with more and more cash with the lure of love.
Men who logged on to its site read that it was for "busy country people who have lost all hope in the dating scene and just want to find a person to share their life with and find happiness".
Some of the women, such as "Stunning Angelina" and "Spellbinding Laura", appeared the stuff of fantasy. The trouble was, many of them were exactly that — fictional women dreamt up by agency staff — according to the Commission, which has had the agency in its sights for the past three years.
The dating site, whose director Leanne McDonald was also known as Leanne Viney, Lana Viney and Lana McDonald, had various ploys to cajole men into paying ever higher membership fees.
A number of men fell for the line that a "compatible" girl had asked to meet them, and they would be introduced once additional fees had been paid.
One man paid A$17,000 in his increasingly desperate attempts to find that special someone who was eagerly waiting to meet him. Another embittered man, who says that he joined the site because life in a small country town was getting lonely, was asked to pay A$4,400 for two years' administration fees.
"A couple of weeks later, they told me it was for something else and charged me more money for more services," the victim, who would identify himself only as Richard from Perth, said.
"I saw their webpage and put my details on there and I was signed up at their most basic membership. Over the next few weeks they contacted me numerous times telling me about different members I could meet, but only if I upgraded my membership each time. They also changed the story of what I was paying for."
Over the next few months he shelled out A$20,000.
This year, after an investigation by the consumer commission, the agency was ordered to repay 35 of its victims A$120,000 and to write to new customers informing them of the "misleading and deceptive conduct" that it had been involved in.
Justice Jeffrey Spender said at the time that the agency's conduct was "not only serious but calculated and quite callous" — although he stopped short of closing it.
Instead, he imposed a seven-year restriction on the way that it advertises and supplies introduction services. It was also ordered to pay A$60,000 in court costs.
Thursday the agency was back in court, with the commission accusing it of failing to honour any of the undertakings.
Ms McDonald was unrepentant. She told the Sydney Morning Herald that she "massively contested" the allegations.
"I have numerous entities. There's nothing wrong with that," she said. "Use whatever name you want."
The matter will return to the Federal Court on September 5.
Rural Network is still operating a site, now called Chances Consulting. It projects itself as "one of Australia's largest and most respected Introduction Agencies,'" catering to the needs of singles "looking for romance in Australia and New Zealand."
It goes on to state that it "caters for busy country people who have lost all hope in the dating scene and just want to find a person to share their life with and find happiness."
Recording similar plight of lonely farmers, the Times Online said that single dairy farmers in Wales began putting their vital statistics on the side of milk bottles last year in an attempt to find love. More details of the farmers are available through an online dating agency
Also L'Amour est dans le Pré (Love is in the Meadow), which attempted to find partners for lonely French farmers including Cecil, a goat breeder from the Pyrenees, became one of the most popular TV shows in France this summer.
Country Life magazine ran a lonely-hearts column for farmers until 2005, when the volume of mail became too large to handle.