The FTC is investigating Ashley Madison over 'fembots'

The probe follows a turbulent year for the infidelity website after hackers, in August 2015, leaked information about millions of users. Class action lawsuits in Canada and the US have since been launched.

by Davide Mastracci
Jul 5 2016, 6:40pm

Imagen vía Ashley Madison

Angry they paid to have a "guaranteed affair" and spent hours chatting with "fembots" instead, former clients of Ashley Madison are now having their grievances probed by the US Federal Trade Commission, according to an executive at the dating website's parent company, Avid Life Media.

The investigation follows a turbulent year for Avid Life Media after hackers, in August 2015, leaked information about millions of Ashley Madison users. Class action lawsuits in Canada and the US have since been launched against the affair website, alleging not enough was done to protect users' privacy.

Former Ashley Madison users also allege the website, which has a male-to-female ratio of 5-1 according to execs, created fembots, computer programs impersonating women, to initiate conversations with men. The new chief executive of Avid Life Media, Rob Segal, told Reuters he isn't sure what the FTC is focusing on, but knows the investigation includes these allegations.

Annalee Newitz, who analyzed the website's source code following the hack in 2015, wrote in Gizmodo, "Ashley Madison's army of fembots appears to have been a sophisticated, deliberate, and lucrative fraud."

Newitz added, "the code tells the story of a company trying to weave the illusion that women on the site are plentiful and eager. Whatever the total number of real, active female Ashley Madison users is, the company was clearly on a desperate quest to design legions of fake women to interact with the men on the site."

Related: Ashley Madison Targeted by Class-Action Lawsuit in Canada Over Privacy Breach

Newitz found that over 70,000 fembots were created, and sent millions of messages to men on the website.

A report into these allegations, commissioned by Avid Life Media and conducted by Ernst & Young, verified that Ashley Madison deliberately misled users with fembots, causing them to waste time chatting with programs instead of people. The website's slogan is "Life is short. Have an affair."

The Ernst & Young report found that some Ashley Madison users in the US chatted with fembots based in other countries until late 2015, though Avid Life Media removed fake profiles in the US, Canada, and Australia in 2014.

Segal, who joined the company three months ago, told Reuters, "We are profoundly sorry," and noted that Avid Life Media is spending millions ramping up security measures in an attempt to prevent future hacks.

The company lost more than a quarter of its revenue since the hack in 2015.

Follow Davide Mastracci on Twitter: @davidemastracci