Editor's Note: After this story aired, the happy client the company introduced us to asked us to remove his last name.
Online dating is popular. But it hasn’t worked for Maria Payne.
“It’s been very difficult,” said Payne. “It’s hard to meet people these days.”
So an ad for Silicon Valley Matchmakers caught Payne’s eye. The company touted itself as a personal and local dating service. She liked that. Even more important: the success stories she heard during orientation.
“They’ve linked up so many people, so many success stories; they showed me a few of them - people who’ve gotten married through the site,” Payne said.
Payne bought in. She paid nearly $8,000 up front for 16 months of matchmaking. But frustration soon kicked in. Payne says it turned out the service wasn’t personal or local. She says she worked with multiple matchmakers, all by phone, from a Sacramento office. She says the matches they made were terrible fits.
“I’m not being picky,” Payne said. “Same mistakes over and over again. It’s like - are you listening to what I’m saying to you? Have you looked at my profile?”
Payne’s membership is about to expire. She says her nearly $8,000 fee to Silicon Valley Matchmakers bought her four bad dates.
“This is our lives, and they’re just taking advantage of that,” said Payne. “I feel like I’ve been taken advantage of.”
Kim Williams has a similar story. Only she signed up with East Bay Matchmakers. She also bought into promises of a personal and local service. Plus, a surplus of available men.
“Their reply was, 'More than you could date,'” Williams said.
Williams signed a $3,000 contract for six months of local matchmaking. It’s now up. She says she also had four dates - set up over the phone, by people more than 100 miles away.
“Ultimately, what it is is very little service for a lot of money,” Williams said. “I’ve been totally taken advantage of. Taken to the cleaners.”
Payne and Williams went to different Bay Area offices, but they were dealing with the same company. It operates at least four matchmaking companies in the Bay Area, plus more than a dozen around the country - all from its headquarters in Oklahoma. Its vice president of operations, Mike Carroll, flew here to address consumers’ concerns.
“One of the complaints that you get over and over again is that they were promised some different schedule of matchmaking than what they literally just initialed stating they’d get,” Carroll said.
He’s right. Singles sign a contract that promises a matchmaking membership for a period of time. It says the company does not guarantee a specific number of introductions, does not guarantee any specific outcome and cannot make a satisfaction guarantee.
“I deal with professional, intelligent, articulate people,” Carroll said. “They’re smart enough to understand the agreement they’re entering into.”
Yet more than 10 people - like Payne and Williams - came to us with complaints. Carroll says that doesn’t alarm him. He says more than 6,000 Bay Area singles have signed up over the past five years, and happy clients send letters every week.
“We get invitations to weddings, wedding videos and thank yous," Carroll said.
When we asked to meet one of those couples, the company introduced us to Frank from San Rafael.
“When I walked out of there the first day, I was like, what am I doing? I can't believe I spent all this money,” Frank said.
Frank told us he paid $4,100 for matchmaking that worked. A matchmaker in Sacramento paired him up with the woman who’s now his fiancee.
“We are engaged, we are happy, we are looking for a house, living the dream,” Frank said.
That’s the dream Payne and Williams and others feel they were sold with testimonials on the matchmakers’ websites and pictures of happy couples on the owner’s Facebook page.
But a testimonial from Blake, thanking Silicon Valley Matchmakers for introducing him to his soulmate Kristie, also appears on East Bay Matchmakers, and even on a website in Nevada, where Blake praises Las Vegas Matchmakers for introducing him to his soulmate Kristie. And a quick search of those pictures of happy couples reveals they’re stock photos.
Carroll acknowledges the photos aren’t clients. He says there’s a privacy concern.
“People aren’t typically real keen about putting their pictures up and stating, ‘Hey we used a matchmaking service,’” Carroll said.
But Carroll insists all testimonials are real, including the success stories the sales people share with potential clients in these local offices where they sign the contract.
Santa Clara University law professor Anna Han reviewed the matchmaker’s contract and called it one-sided.
“I think you’re buying something sight unseen, and you’re paying a lot of money for this,” Han said.
Han says if multiple singles feel they were lured in by false promises, they could file a class action lawsuit.
“If people are induced into signing a contract with fraudulent promises, then they do have a claim,” Han said. “They can basically claim that they were asked to sign something under false pretenses, that they were promised things.”
But singles like Payne and Williams and others we talked to want something else.
“I think it should be shut down,” Payne said.
Everyone who reached out to us wanted refunds. The company said no. But it did extend their membership. A settlement with Maria might be in the works. The company is now running another dating service in the Bay Area called Executive Matchmakers.
Han offered some advice. Before signing up for any service like this, negotiate a pay-as-you-go schedule. So if you don’t like the results at any point, you can cut loose without losing everything.
With a matchmaker, Han said she’d ask to see a profile of members before signing up. Ask to see data on age, education, religion and professions. Get a feel for the pool before diving in.