You be the Judge: How an American woman won $2 million from a matrimonial site

Advertisements that misrepresents is the same thing as cheating, and rights need to be enforced by taking advantage of the law

Last fortnight, we asked if job-seekers, when sent off on smoke-and-mirror interviews, are entitled to judicial relief. Most Moneylifers must have said, ‘So what?’ It’s a small thing, after all. Herein lies the rub. One has a right not to be cheated. The right does not specify the quantum of loss (though Indian law does not recognise losses under Rs50/-). Misrepresentation is cheating. And rights need to be enforced.

We go back to 2006, when a matrimonial site in America promised, not just a honeymoon, but almost the moon itself! “Join our scheme and stop driving around in that old car, when you can be driven around in a Rolls Royce,” they said. In other words, ‘We will get you a rich spouse’!

A dear old lady, a 60-year-young widow, opted to join. For a long time, nothing happened... except a few dates, with supposedly eligible and RICH grooms-to-be. She met a few men, obviously hoping to meet Mr Right. Until one day, she realised that the ‘international banker’ she had gone out with was no more than an interpreter at a bank. A clerk. Without the Rolls or any other fancy conveyance. In this case, she had, fortunately for her, paid money to enrol. There was a definite breach of contract. Lies, lies and more lies.

The dear woman was made of sterner stuff. She sued.

Now,You be the judge.
Consider the facts. She was made an offer, through an advertisement, word-of-mouth or any other means. She accepted the offer. Paid the fees. She expected the promised service, in return. She put faith in the organisation. They not only failed her but fooled her. That is what the court would look at. The deceit. The fraud. The trickery.

However, there is one thing to take a note of. Free services, when offered, may be difficult to pin down. There should be some compensation. Only then can one prove reneging on a contract."

So what happened to the old lady and her suit?
This was in America and she won. Two million dollars. That’s Rs12 crore! With that sort of money, who wants to get remarried?

Of late, we, in India, have woken up to such ‘schemes’. Incorrect, misleading advertisements are being looked into. A few years ago, Citibank offered customers a free air-ticket on a certain value of Diwali shopping. It got its numbers wrong, because thousands of people qualified for the bonanza. The Bank tried to wiggle out of the commitment blaming a third party for the mistake. When complaints piled up, Moneylife’s editor took up the matter with the Reserve Bank of India. Its customer service department said, a promise is a promise and the Bank was told to pay up, at a stiff loss to itself. Moneylife has been in the forefront, when financial products and insurance matters are to be pursued; and with success.

So why not with other will-o-the-wisp offers? Does the value have to be in thousands or lakhs of rupees, to be considered ripe for the picking? Are not everyday products fit for the scanner? How much different is a pyramid scheme from one that promises an impossibility? Fairness creams are under pressure. Why not other products?

Whether it is the manipulated job-seeker or the hope-filled widow, the law is on the books, ready to be used. The question that most would ask is whether it is worth following it up. The answer is in two parts. One such demeanour may be ignored but, when they add up, a lot of persons get affected. Class action may be the solution and the brand new Companies Act 2013 has, finally, opened the door to class action litigation in India.

The second part is a bit more involved. If you care not for the small infractions of law, how long will it be before larger ones become impossible to manage? At a recent conference of the US-INDIA Business Council, the common argument was that India has enough laws; more than enough. The problem is implementation. How long are we going to be made monkeys of?

Bapoo Malcolm is a practising lawyer in Mumbai. Please email your comments to [email protected] or [email protected]

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