THE BACK PAGES

$2,500 to date this doofus?

They’re promised high-quality matches; all they feel is burned

ANNE KINGSTON September 3 2007
THE BACK PAGES

$2,500 to date this doofus?

They’re promised high-quality matches; all they feel is burned

ANNE KINGSTON September 3 2007

THE BACK PAGES

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$2,500 to date this doofus?

help

They’re promised high-quality matches; all they feel is burned

ANNE KINGSTON

What’s a fair price for soulmate connection these days? Five figures? Four? That was the question Diane, a 42-year-old lawyer, grappled with last September as she sat in the well-appointed downtown Toronto office of the Allied Network. Divorced, with a child, she’d been drawn to “Ontario’s largest and most respected dating service,” as it bills itself, by a flyer in the mail. She’d thumbed through a scrapbook filled with satisfied client testimonials, filled out a form and spoken to a consultant for over an hour about her romantic specifications, revealing that she made $300,000 a year—all the while being told of the wonderful prospects waiting. “I have someone in mind who’d be terrific for you,” the consultant told her. Talk turned to fee, a subject the company refuses to discuss over the telephone. She was told to “think in terms of a small mortgage”—$20,000 to $25,000 for the top packages. When she balked, the agent renegotiated. “She said, ‘You’re such an easy person to set up. Let’s see what we can do,’ ” Diane recalls. After agreeing on $7,000, she handed over her Visa. When the woman returned saying only $5,000 had been accepted, she assumed the deal was off. “But then she said, ‘That’ll do,’ ” Diane recalls. “So I signed a confidentiality agreement not to discuss the fee because I was getting so much better a deal than everyone else.”

She laughs.

Neither of the two men she was put in contact with she found remotely compatible. She’s considering legal action but is too busy. “It’s on my to-do list for next month,” she says. Her hectic schedule, ironically, was what propelled her to a dating service in the first place. Computerized facsimiles of the village matchmaker may seem anachronistic in the

increasingly stratified universe of Internet meeting sites, but they too fill a niche—timestrapped, high-income earners weary of the hunt. There’s a genteel, personal air to dating services’ mechanics: they’re intermediaries, providing descriptions and names; it’s up to clients to decide whether or not they want to meet. “It gets tiring to go on Lavalife and scrutinize people,” says Diane, who’s part of a market accustomed to outsourcing personal services. “Someone puts your living room together,” she says. “I figured they should put this together too.” Fees that can run $1,000 per introduction are presented as proof of candidate quality and selective screening. “They told me, ‘You get what you pay for,’ ” says Lisa, a 56-year-old Toronto lawyer who bristled at the $5,000 fee when she went to the Allied Network four years ago. “I was told, ‘You’re going to meet top-notch men and you’re going to meet the love of your life so

When talk turned to fee, the lawyer was told to 'think in terms of a small mortgage'—$20,000 to $25,000 for the top packages

you’ve got to decide whether it’s worth it or not.’ ” The prosecutor known for her hardnosed negotiation skills in her professional life meekly handed over her credit card. None of her four introductions was suitable, she says. “The quantity was there but the quality wasn’t.” It’s not only the wealthy who are lured by the prospect of customized compatibility. Nick, a 32-year-old Ottawa resident, was unemployed when he paid $3,000 to LifeMates (“Canada’s leading dating and relationship company,” according to its website) three years ago. After a three-hour interview, he

was told he’d be introduced to women with common interests. “Not even close,” he says of the seven women he met.

For some, dating services offer a last resort, the promise of an otherwise invisible eligibility pool. Marie, a university professor, had just turned 60 when she went to the Allied Network three years ago. Told there were hundreds of men in her age category looking for a woman like her, she paid $3,000 (reduced from $7,500, then $5,000 as a “one-day special deal” after she resisted). She shakes her head at the memory.

Getting a fix on the provincially legislated dating-service industry is difficult. The companies are private. Ontario’s Ministry of Government Services has received 75 telephone inquiries and 36 written complaints about dating services since Jan. 1,2006, more than a dozen each about Allied and LifeMates. Both appear on the ministry’s “Consumer Beware List” for failing to respond to complaints within prescribed timelines—LifeMates four times and the Allied Network once.

Whether this is the tip of the iceberg is unknowable. “You’re going to hear the complaints, not the happy stories,” says Susan Dawson, a senior consultant at the Allied Network. She claims the company, in business since 1992, has an 85 per cent success raterelationships lasting over a year and a half, engagement or marriage. It’s a statistic that’s impossible to verify, as is Allied’s claim of 18,000 clients ranging from 25 to 80 or its 1:1 male-female ratio. (LifeMates, which boasts over 10,000 active clients, says it has connected “thousands” of couples.) Allied referred Maclean’s to a satisfied customer named Frank, a 36-year-old engineer who met the woman he married a year ago on his third introduction. Still, he asks that his full name not be used (other dating-service veterans also

requested anonymity), saying it would make him uncomfortable. “It seems different to have to pay someone to find you a wife.” Such reluctance to talk allows dating services to fly under the radar. Those who’ve turned to them speak of feeling embarrassed at having to pay to meet people, even though everybody and his grandmother is on Lavalife these days. We like to think of the ideal romantic meeting as serendipitous, says Bradley Moseley-Williams, a co-founder of Singleparentlovelife.com and an Ottawa-based consultant to the online dating industry. He cites

He 'works in medical supplies,' she was told. She had to wonder, 'Does that mean he owns Apotex? Or is he a heroin user?’

a survey by sociologist David Buss that found the two ways people most wanted to meet romantic partners were through fender benders or colliding supermarket carts: a gentle crash followed by starry-eyed connection.

Dating services tap into the similarly romantic belief that one’s soulmate is not only out there but is on their database. (“Chances are we’ve already met the perfect person for you,” boasts one Allied ad.) Dawson claims clients are matched on “the 10 most important areas of compatibility”: affection, religion, romance, personal image, attitudes, work, motivation, energy level, temperament and dominance. “It’s not what people say,” she says. “It involves reading between the lines as well.”

Lisa, who was told she was “prime real estate” in her interview, says her introductions failed to meet her highly specific demands, which included “attractive, not bald, taller, healthy, active, a professional or someone who earns more money, no baggage, likes animals, rides horses, enjoys a glass of wine but is not an alcoholic.” Frank’s needs were more generic: “I was looking for the opposite of my ex-wife: someone who is honest and understanding, who was self-sufficient and not needy,” he says.

Marie, a left-leaning feminist, questions the effort made to find a match, though not

the notion that one didn’t exist. Of her three introductions she declined to meet two (one, an “incredibly rigid right-wing man,” after he told her what to wear on their date). She met a radio announcer in his 60s who told her he was looking for someone in her 40s. When she called to complain she was shuttled around, she says.

Nick wonders why he even bothered compiling a list of qualities he was seeking. “I wanted someone who was educated, who was interested in music, in film, in art, someone who liked to play tennis,” he says. Most of the women he met were in their early 20s, interested only in partying. One encounter was with a lawyer he describes as “one of the most depressing people I’ve met on the face of the earth. She did nothing but complain. She had no interests except for work.”

Diane allowed herself to believe she’d only meet men in her income bracket after the woman she consulted with said, “One thing I know after doing this for 18 years is that it’s going to be problematic for you to go out with anyone making less; they should be making the same or more.” Her first prospect was described over the phone as “cute, funny, handsome.” When she asked what he did, she was told “something in management.” He worked in a low-level clerical job. She

found him unattractive and uninteresting, though a nice person. She sent Allied a letter saying there had been misrepresentation and that she wanted her money back. A big law firm responded, which she viewed as an intimidation tactic. “It’s embarrassing to me as a lawyer,” she says. “It’s a small community.” She was offered a second set-up, someone who “works in medical supplies.” “What does that mean?” she asks. “He owns Apotex? Or he’s a heroin user?” She declined to meet him after a strained telephone conversation. Dawson says the process requires patience. “We never promise instant results.” Indeed, Marie says the woman she dealt with said that even though her contract was for four introductions, they’d continue to introduce her until she found somebody. Carmen Mercer, director of LifeMates’ call centre, boasts of that company’s “trademarked relationship goal guarantee,” in which membership continues in a Sisyphean manner until that special someone is met. That a match wouldn’t be made wasn’t even on the table, says Lisa. “She was so positive she’d find me the right person.”

Recourse exists for disgruntled dating-service clients, says Ontario Ministry of Government Services spokesman Michael Patton. Agreements can be cancelled within one year of signing if they contain false or misleading statements. False or misleading verbal statements can also result in charges, he says, though proving who said what in a meeting can be difficult without witnesses. Nick says he was led to believe he’d be charged only what had been deducted in monthly credit card instalments if he changed his mind within three months. When he cancelled after two months, he was sent a bill for the outstanding amount. A lawyer told him the contract was airtight and that challenging it would result in him paying LifeMate’s legal fees as well. “It’s my fault for not reading it very closely,” Nick says, “but after three hours I was fairly tired.”

Marie has written off the $3,000. Lisa, who calls the experience “hope-crushing,” was more aggressive. After threatening to go to the press, she recouped $3,000 of the $5,000. “I felt like such an idiot,” she says. “I thought if I don’t get this money back I’ll hate myself.” Nick’s experience drove him back to school to become a paralegal. “I wanted to know something about the law,” he says. “I didn’t want to be in this position ever again.” While taking the course, he met the woman who is now his wife. He laughs at the idea LifeMates led him to his spouse. “Yeah,” he says, “in a very indirect way they fulfilled their promise.” M