Meeting people should be easy. After all, the world is full of them and they're fairly evenly divided in terms of gender, height and so forth. But as a review of literature stretching back to cave drawings will tell you, meeting -- and hanging onto -- the right person isn't all that easy.
This is where dating services come in. They're not perfect but they're better than ordering brides by mail or submitting to your mother's idea of who your perfect match is.
Just like other means of meeting candidates for romance, dating sites are fraught with peril. You could meet people you don't like, people who don't like you, people who are boring or even downright dangerous. But the same is true of just about any other method of meeting people. Ever ridden the subway?
What it comes down to is that there are risks in everything so as long as you take the obvious precautions -- don't meet strangers in dark places, don't send money to someone you've never met and don't reveal all your personal information in a single gush -- online dating is probably less dangerous than crossing a busy street or trying to clean out your gutters on a windy day.
One thing's for sure -- there's no shortage of dating sites. No one really knows how many there are but the answer is somewhere in the thousands. Like people, they come in all shapes and sizes. Some are free, others are pricey. Some take everybody, some are selective. Many cater to individual tastes -- there are sites for gays, Jews, Christians, equestrians, millionaires, Hispanics and old white people. There are even dating sites for virgins.
Here's a sampling to get you started. We're not saying these are the best sites for you -- that's something you need to decide for yourself -- but like examining puppies or seaside condos, looking can be half the fun. Might as well get started.
Remember how we said there were sites that cater to every demographic slice imaginable? Well, here's one that specializes in New England, a locale that can be a little forbidding and frosty to the uninitiated.
Fittingly for a site in a region that cherishes its history and traditions, Successful Singles has been around since 1984, which is not quite the Colonial Era but actually predates the Internet as we know it.
Successful Singles even goes so far as to announce that it is not an online dating site, instead proclaiming itself to the "the premier social introduction service in Boston."
Rather than using algorithms to match clients, Successful Singles uses a more personal approach, starting with a 10-minute phone consultation followed by a 50-minute face-to-face meeting, after which it promises introductions within 10 days.
The approach seems to work with the upscale client base it's targeting. At ConsumerAffairs, we don't hear much about Successful Singles but what we do hear is pretty positive.
"I spent months online with no success. Joined Successful Singles and met women that were interested in having a long-term committed relationship. I don't have lots of time to spend on the computer, so having my own personal matchmaker was an ideal situation for me," said John of Norwood, Mass.
If the prospect of spending a New England winter by yourself is a chilling prospect, Successful Singles may be the answer. More information here.
It's Just Lunch uses an approach similar to Successful Singles, offering to pair up compatible couples for lunch or a drink after work. Describing itself as a "dating service for professionals," It's Just Lunch also uses a personal counselor approach, hoping to find just the right chemistry in each situation. With offices in major cities, it's not restricted to a single geographic area.
The reviews we're received at ConsumerAffairs the last few years have been largely positive, like this one from Michael of North Carolina: "By and large I have been satisfied with the experiences gained from the group. The dates have all been delightful, professional women. I have enjoyed my experiences, and have made a connection with one of the women."
There's no free lunch and IJL is not exception. Prices vary but be ready to spend $1,000 or more. That may sound like a lot and while it may be true that money can't buy happiness, it may at least make the down payment.
No matter how much or little you spend, being too rigid in your expectations or specifications can lead to frustration. One negative review we read said the client wanted to meet no one older than 32 and became angry when one date turned out to be 34. The world is a big place but perhaps not quite big enough to be so inflexible in our choices.
As with all the services featured here, read the contract carefully, be sure you understand it and keep a copy. Contracts mean what they say. If a dating service says it will introduce you to two people a month, it's not realistic to expect it to produce more than that. More info here.
Maybe it's just that folks really are friendly (or at least very cold) in Canada and unusually grateful for human warmth but for whatever reason, Lifemates Canada seems to have a stellar record of forging new alliances.
"I submitted a review a number of months ago and I just wanted to say that Marcel and I have now been married for a number of months and are very happy," said Sheree of Kitchener, On., in a ConsumerAffairs review, one of several from Lifemates clients who tied the knot with dates they met through the service.
Like Successful Singles and It's Just Lunch, Lifemates uses a personal inteview and match-up process and targets upscale clients.
"The Lifemates Canada Dating program carefully evaluates each and every member so that we can introduce you to an individual that shares your interests and background," the company says. "Lifemates introduces you to members whom, because of common values, goals, professional backgrounds and other similarities, provide the highest likelihood that you will move your date into a true relationship."
Lifemates Canada has been in business for more than 20 years and has 10 offices around the country. More info here.
Lunch is OK but what if you want to go skydiving or horseback riding? That's where Events and Adventures comes in. Operating in nine cities, Events and Adventures organizes a series of events each month for its invitation-only clients.
"In a group, there’s no pressure, everyone relaxes, and you can be yourself. Each month is packed with 30-50 great event choices: foodie, night out, active adventure, casual hangout," the company says. "We are an invitation-only club of people like you spending social time having fun with like-minded people."
It gets high marks from ConsumerAffairs reviewers like Bob of Phoenix, who wrote: "Since I joined Events and Adventures I’ve attended probably close to a hundred events like pottery painting... so many different events. I had a great time at the Extreme Adventure Course up in Flagstaff.... There have been a lot of nice people. I’ve made a lot of friends and found a significant other through Events and Adventures."
The monthly events range from a simple wine-tasting to outdoor sports and expeditions to foreign lands. To join, applicants must be successfully interviewed and must certify that they are single.
Perhaps a big point in E&A's favor is that it's not just a dating service but also a way to meet new friends -- something that's often a problem for stressed-out professionals.
"What interested me most about the club was meeting new people. With Events & Adventures, I have made new friends," said Nick of Minneapolis in a ConsumerAffairs review. "I have attended two trips or events a month. I went bowling, I went to both singles mixers, both party buses, movies. But my favorite was the Halloween haunted house party bus."
Like other higher-end services, E&A doesn't list its prices on its website so be sure you understand the pricing and have read the contract carefully before signing anything. Learn more here.
The dating services we've looked at so far have all been, to one degree or another, what the MBA types call niche plays -- designed to appeal to a certain slice of society, and generally a higher socio-economic slice at that. They all have a personal "facetime" element as well -- you have to meet, or at least talk to, a human being to be accepted.
Match.com is the exact opposite. It's what we might all a "pure Internet play" -- everything's done online, nearly anyone can register and what happens after that is up to you.
It's perhaps the difference between using a personal shopper at Nordstrom and just going online and buying something that looks about right on eBay. As you would expect, this creates a lot more room for error. On the other hand, it's a lot cheaper -- nearly free, in fact. Membership runs about $30 a month, depending on which plan you choose.
Like any do-it-yourself project, usine a site like Match.com means you need to be a very careful shopper. Take Poonsie of Gaithersburg, Md., who narrowly escaped misfortune.
"Three men scammed me in this site by using Caucasian pictures instead of their own pictures. I recognized Nigerian accent in phone and told them I was going to report them. They cancelled their accounts and now I can't find them in Match.com," she said in a ConsumerAffairs review.
It's a good thing Poonsie came to her senses but lots of others don't. Last month, our Jennifer Abel wrote about a woman who nearly sent $40,000 to an online suitor who had concocted some sort of story about needing money to get to the U.S. so the two could begin their blissful relationship.
This is the kind of thing that can happen on low-cost, mostly unmoderated sites so it's essential to be on your guard at all times. Even in the best circles, things are often not what they seem and online, they can be truly dreadful, even dangerous.
You might meet up with someone like George of Farmington Hills, Mich.:
I am an admitted violent offender with a police record. I keep getting emails from match.com to join. I have called & emailed them to stop trying to get me to subscribe but even after knowing my situation they continue to try and make money off me. ... I just got in bar fights beating on drunk males but what about child & other sex offenders?
We haven't verified George's claims but if you scroll through the 1,175 consumer reviews on our site, it becomes quickly apparent that, while there may be really great people lurking on Match, there are quite a few others who probably would not make great luncheon companions, let alone lovers.
On the other hand, it's also true that there are lots of great opportunities just waiting to unfold on Match.com and the other relatively wide-open sites. It's easy to forget this, since it's generally the people who are disappointed who are most likely to go public, while those whose search is successful aren't as inclined to tell the world about it.
At a family dinner recently, I mentioned that I was working on a story about dating sites and was informed of Match.com's role in several pairings, including the recent marriage of a very close relative and the longterm relationship of another. A close friend, I was told, is in a serious relationship that grew out of Tinder, a site that operates much like Match but on a somewhat smaller scale.
My immediate response was that nobody ever tells me anything. My daughter assured me that in her circle of friends in Los Angeles, everyone just assumes when new relationships spring up that the people met online.
"Nobody has time to meet anybody. Everybody's too busy working and going to auditions," she said. (Everyone knows this is why LA traffic is so bad -- the populace is constantly shuttling between auditions and parttime gigs). More info here.
Nothing new, really
To hear people talk about dating services, you'd think they were an exciting and mind-bending innovation or a newly-arrived plague but the truth is they've been around forever in slightly different formats.
If you get right down to it, Successful Singles, It's Just Lunch, et al aren't much different from the way people have always hooked up -- through the recommendations of friends and acquaintances. OK, you're paying somebody to do it, but it's the same principle.
Events & Adventures simply makes it easier to do what enterprising singles have always done -- joined social, sports, adventure and education groups to have fun and meet new people.
Back in my misspent youth as a reporter for large news agencies, I tended to move every year or two. Valuing my liver, I didn't want to hang out with other journalists, so I prowled what we then called alternative weekies -- New Times, the Village Voice, etc. -- looking for likely sounding companions. I also tried mountaineering clubs, sailing lessons and sports car racing. (Actually, there weren't many women racing sports cars but at least we lonely guys got to drive fast without getting in trouble).
I met several significant others this way, not to mention quite a few insignificant others. It was more fun than sitting in church basements or working for political candidates (which would be even worse than hanging out with journalists).
The alternative weeklies have pretty much faded away but they've been replaced by dating sites for every imaginable taste and budget. The more risk-averse among us are probably better off spending a little money for the kind of professional help offered by the more exclusive sites, while the more adventurous may be able to succesfully navigate the tricky shoals of the free-for-all sites.
An easy way to get started is to read the reviews on our site and others. Do this before you sign anything. You would not believe how often we hear, "If only I had read your site before I ..."
When you find a service that seems right for you, explore as much as you can, review all of the material, examine the pricing in great detail, read the contract several times and be sure you understand it. Only then should you provide your credit card number or fork over any cash.
Finally, as in all things, hope for the best but prepare for the worst. Things may work out great in the end but you will most likely need to make course corrections along the way. Everyone has setbacks but all's well that ends well and, as they say, it's not over til it's over.