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By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 7/15/2009 2:33:08 PM ET 2009-07-15T18:33:08

It's true that many people successfully find love, romance and companionship with the help of online and brick-and-mortar dating services. At the same time, it's also true that many dating-service customers experience the heartbreak of spending a whole lot of money for a whole lot of nothing.

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Officials with the Better Business Bureau say they're regularly bombarded by complaints from hundreds of dissatisfied dating-service customers. Last year the BBB reported a 73 percent jump in complaints.

“This industry is growing so fast, it’s just phenomenal — and so is the number of complaints,” BBB spokesman Steve Cox said. “Whether you pay thousands of dollars for a matchmaking service or $50 a month for an online membership, you need to know just what you’re getting into.”

Especially in these recessionary times, the following tips can help you avoid spending too much or hiring a dating service that isn't right for you:

1. Realize that you may not meet your match through a service. Cox of the Better Business Bureau noted that the average cost per person to use a matchmaking service is $5,000 — and some people spend as much as $10,000. That, of course, is a lot of money. “And consumers still come up with a complaint that says, ‘Hey, I wasn’t matched up with the right demographic,’ or, ‘I was expecting 10 dates and I got two,’ or, ‘It’s been months and I’m still waiting for my first date,’ ” Cox said, citing some of the more common complaints about matchmaking services. Other complaints tend to focus on shoddy customer service and high-pressure sales tactics.

This is not to say that people don’t meet and fall in love through such services — because they do. But recognize from the outset that spending such a large sum of money does not guarantee that you’ll meet that perfect someone.

Before you shell out this kind of cash for such a service in your area, ask the following questions:

  • How long will I have to wait before my first date?
  • How long will it realistically take for me to be introduced to, say, 10 people?
  • Are there situations where I might be placed back at “the end of the line,” as it were?
  • Can I speak with other customers — both past customers and customers who just started using the service within the past couple of months?
  • What kind of a refund policy exists if I’m not satisfied?

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2. The cost of online dating services can really add up. You may not pay as much for an online dating service as you might for a matchmaking service — but you could over time if you’re not careful. Such services typically cost about $30 to $60 a month over the course of a specified contract period. That may sound reasonable enough, but watch out: Your membership may be automatically renewed without you realizing it. This issue generates about two-thirds of the complaints filed with the BBB against online dating services. Because this can happen so easily, it’s important to clarify the cancellation procedures before you join. Mark your calendar so you’ll be sure not to miss any key cancellation deadlines. Be prepared to follow up with the dating service both over the phone and in writing in order to make your cancellation stick.

3. Do some sleuthing online. Whether you’re considering a local matchmaking company or an online dating service that has a wide reach, do a quick online search of the business in question. Your search may lead you to dozens, if not hundreds, of complaints in a matter of minutes. In addition to doing a general Internet search, you can visit this Better Business Bureau site to view a company’s complaint history. You also can check with your state’s attorney general’s office or consumer affairs department. To start the process of finding contact information for your state, click here .

4. Know where to gather key intelligence. Before joining an online dating service — or a matchmaking service that has a fairly comprehensive presence on the Internet — take the time to read these three sections of the company’s Web site:

  • The privacy policy;
  • the “about us” page, and
  • the “frequently asked questions” page.

“These are the places where the consumer can discern the philosophy and business practices for the service,” Cox said. “You’ll see contract information here, as well as what you’ll be on the hook for.”

5. Have criteria in mind for online dating services. Opt for a service that’s been around for a few years and that has established itself in the industry. It’s also a good idea to choose a service that lets you browse profiles and photos before you have to join so you can see what you’re paying for, Cox advised. Another key detail: Be sure the service offers a secure payment method. When you reach the point of payment, the site’s address should contain an “s” after the “http:”, like so: “https:”. Internet browsers also display an icon such as a gold padlock to verify that the site is secure.

6. Understand what is meant by a free trial. The words “free trial” may sound straightforward enough, but in the world of online dating they might be anything but. Since a trial period can mean so many different things on different sites, take the time to read the fine print about this — and if the fine print is hard to find, call the customer service number and ask for specifics. Many consumers complained to the BBB about signing up for a free trial but getting funneled into a paid subscription instead. That’s all the more reason to avoid entering your credit-card information until you know exactly when you’ll start being charged.

7. Protect your personal e-mail address. For safety and privacy reasons, avoid sharing your personal e-mail address with anyone you meet over the Internet. Ideally the online dating service you use will offer on-site messaging and e-mail services. If that’s not the case, you can take a moment to create a separate — and free — e-mail address through Hotmail, Gmail or Yahoo! and then use that address to manage your online dating life.

8. Never cave in when confronted with high-pressure sales tactics. Whether you’re dealing with a salesperson face-to-face at a matchmaking company or visiting a slew of online dating sites, don’t sign up for anything too quickly. Read contracts over with care in the privacy of your own home before you agree to spend a dime. With matchmaking services, don’t be afraid to change terms in the contract that make you uncomfortable or to haggle over price. If you encounter high-pressure tactics or pie-in-the-sky promises, walk away.

9. Think about your safety. Reflect on ways to stay safe with the people you meet — and with people you never meet. For example, your online dating profile may remain posted on a Web site for quite a while after your membership has ended. All sorts of people could continue reading up about you and contacting you at that point. If you don’t want this to happen, keep pestering the service until your profile is removed. As far as dating safety is concerned, find out exactly what the service does to screen for criminals and married people. This information may not be as easy to get as you might think.

Other safety tips:

  • Avoid sharing your personal information, such as your last name, home phone number and address, too quickly with anyone you date.
  • Always meet in a public place for your first date.
  • Be sure to let a close friend know where you’ll be and who you’ll be meeting.

10. Think about your privacy. Tip No. 4 mentioned the importance of reading a company’s privacy policy. Here’s a little bit more food for thought in that vein: Even if a company says it won’t sell your personal information to anyone, it still may share your information with its “cobranded companies,” partners and advertisers. Clarify whether or not that’s the case. If it is, and if you don’t feel comfortable with that approach, don’t sign up.

Sources:

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