A new player in the online dating industry has denied allegations that it is sending fake replies to lonely hearts to woo them into paying a subscription fee.

Suspicion that the website Two2Meet was misleading potential customers began when internet researcher Ramon Thomas posted a very scanty description of himself on the website.

Over the next three days he received three e-mails from a woman called "Febe", who claimed: "I did my perfect match search and you were on the top of the list."

Yet Thomas says he gave so little detail that there was no way his profile would interest a genuine potential partner. To test his suspicions, Thomas asked a colleague to enrol as well.

"He received exactly the same e-mails," Thomas said.

Donovan Hoare, whose company InfoFinder created the Two2Meet website, denied that any replies were fake. "The allegations are completely false," he said. "We are not going to mail people just to get them interested. We only have two full-time staff so we don't have time."

If the replies had not seemed genuine, it was because a female subscriber had sent several e-mails to every single man on the database, he said.

SA's lucrative online dating industry generated R20m last year, according to research. About 250000 people used the services last year, up 24% from 2003.

That made it very tempting for unscrupulous sites, or those with very few users, to generate false replies to fool lonely hearts into signing up, Thomas said.

Two2Meet has also been threatened with legal action for copyright infringement by DatingBuzz, which runs several established dating sites.

"They are a new entrant and they copied our site," said DatingBuzz founder Duncan Forrest. A solicitor's letter persuaded Two2Meet to redesign the site. But Forrest also claims that the new rival is trying to poach his customers. Some DatingBuzz users received a message from a potential date called Kari, who suggested that they use the Two2Meet site instead.

When Forrest investigated, he found the subscription allowing Kari to contact DatingBuzz users was paid for with Donovan Hoare's credit card. To test the new rival, a DatingBuzz employee then posted his profile on Two2Meet, giving so few details that it would not set any hearts aflutter, Forrest said.

"The next day he started getting e-mails from a person absolutely raving about how wonderful he sounded. Over a couple of days three people were being super-enthusiastic, when he hadn't actually said anything about himself," said Forrest. Hoare said the allegations were inspired by jealousy. "DatingBuzz is just getting upset because we only launched in October and we have a bunch of features they don't have," he said.

Business Day