(Florida Today) -- Like millions of single people, Carol Moran of Palm Bay was using online dating services to find love but having trouble meeting someone special.
So, she was thrilled when she saw a white cardboard sign on U.S. 1 advertising a matchmaking service called "RomanceinMelbourne.com." That seemed better than an online dating service where the onus was on the individual to sift potential dates, and its name suggested a business closer to home.
"I thought it would be safer to go to a local matchmaking service than to go back to online dating," Moran said.
But after paying $2,000 and waiting for four months to receive one of the 10 matches she purchased, Moran did not receive a single match. So she filed a complaint with Florida's Division of Consumer Services.
Moran isn't the only consumer to say that she was jilted by the matchmaking company that runs RomanceinMelbourne.com. That company, SinglesPLUS, has received dozens of Better Business Bureau complaints from consumers in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, and has had its Better Business Bureau accreditation formally revoked from its offices in Jacksonville, Orlando and Melbourne. The Florida attorney general has received 58 complaints about SinglesPLUS since January 2012.
Based in South Carolina
SinglesPLUS is based in North Charleston, S.C., but it operates dozens of seemingly local matchmaking Web sites, including some on the Space Coast, where it advertises through various websites, including "CocoaBeachDating.com," "VieraSingles.com" and "SatelliteBeachSingles.com." Small signs advertising SinglesPLUS websites used to be ubiquitous on Brevard highways, but many have disappeared. However, the SinglesPLUS websites are still up, and the business continues to answer its Melbourne phone number.
On its Facebook page, the company bills itself as "the South East's leading upscale personal matchmaking firm." SinglesPLUS, which is officially registered with Florida's Division of Corporations as "The Relationship Company," uses what it calls "relationship consultants" to conduct in-person interviews and then negotiate prices for matchmaking services. The matchmaking service contracts, which generally cost upwards of $1,000 and sometimes exceed $3,000, often promise consumers a specific number of matches.
In a written statement, SinglesPLUS told FLORIDA TODAY that it has "hundreds of success stories" and that it has been unfairly vilified by disgruntled consumers.
"Our company takes the concerns and complaints of members very seriously; however, when an individual refuses to meet people that we hand select, neglects to provide feedback or restricts their dating preferences substantially, they are not working in their own best interest and essentially impeding their own success," the company said in a statement.
Susanne Wedberg of Jacksonville said that she wanted to give SinglesPLUS a public endorsement, because she had a positive experience with the company. It was through their matchmaking that she met her fiance, Mike Swann.
"Everything I said I wanted to find in a human being I found in Mike," she said. "They hit the nail on the head."
Several SinglesPLUS consumers expressed similar sentiments, saying that the matchmaking service was instrumental in helping them find suitable romantic partners.
Others paint a less positive portrait.
FLORIDA TODAY examined 15 official complaints from SinglesPLUS clients in Florida who filed grievances with the state. In these complaints, some consumers said they did not receive services they paid for or that the matches provided to them vastly contradicted their stated dating preferences. SinglesPLUS recently reached a confidential settlement with two consumers in Florida and has been successfully sued by consumers in South Carolina and Georgia, a state where three consumers have recovered damages from the company under its alternate name "The Relationship Company."
Whitney Ray, a spokesman for Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, said their office is reviewing consumer complaints about SinglesPLUS.
"We are reviewing the complaints to determine if the company may have violated the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act," he said.
In Moran's official complaint to Florida's Division of Consumer Services, she wrote, "It should not be taking this long to come up with my first match! I feel defrauded."
SinglesPLUS president Ken Pogue dismissed Moran's complaints, and others like hers, as coming from individuals with unrealistic expectations.
In a recent telephone interview, Pogue said: "Sometimes people feel that because they spend money, they're entitled to keep their standards high . . . People get frustrated. They have this vision of Prince Charming going through the door. They need to be realistic."
A former employee of SinglesPLUS said she was told to use any means necessary to persuade consumers to sign the company's service contract, and that salespeople like her were paid purely based on commission.
"I pretty much got fired because I felt terrible and I couldn't do it," said Christina Hencken, who worked in Melbourne as a relationship consultant for the company for five months.
She also said that she believed it was impossible for SinglesPLUS to provide the high-quality matches that the company promised given the size of its subscriber base. "It just wasn't enough of a dating pool for these people," she said.
Hencken added, "We were instructed to tell people it takes time to make matches, which was totally bogus."
Pogue, the company's president, denied the accusations and said the former employee was probably just angry about losing work. He said that his company had never paid workers based on commission alone, that the company was selective about clients, and that it defied "common sense" for a company to solicit business from people without financial means.
He said that SinglesPLUS had "hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of members," but refused to give precise figures.
After nearly six months of waiting for the company to provide her with the 10 matches she paid for, Moran received a full reimbursement of her money from her credit card company, which ruled in her favor when she disputed the charge from SinglesPLUS. It was only after Moran received that refund that SinglesPLUS sent her a match, but at that point, she told the company she wanted "no further contact" from them.
FLORIDA TODAY found some SinglesPLUS customers who have spent months seeking refunds from the company. That's partly because of the terms of a service contract which SinglesPLUS has used in the past, which states that "there are no time limitations set forth or agreed upon by SinglesPLUS," and "referrals will come on an as-available basis."
The contract also contains a clause which says that clients are responsible for half of the service fee if they elect to cancel their subscription within 72 hours, even though Florida state law says that consumers can get a full refund for future services if they cancel within a three-day window.
Holly Salmons, the vice president of the Central Florida Better Business Bureau, said that she was horrified by "the volume of complaints" against SinglesPLUS and "the speed that they started coming" in the past few months.
Recently, the Central Florida division of the Better Business Bureau voted to revoke the accreditation of the company's location in Melbourne.
"We feel that once a company develops a high volume of complaints, there's clearly an issue," Salmons said.
The company president, Pogue, said, "Dating is a very emotional topic and most if not all of the complaints that you would have received would be from people that have not completed their service."
Pogue also said that his dissatisfied customers were often those who "want to see a result right away."
"SinglesPLUS does not claim to perform miracles but does claim that our resources with our strategic marketing and expert staff are able to give local singles better chances to meet the love of their life," the company said in a written statement.
Tips on dating services
Stephanie D. McKenzie, the author of a book called "The Business of Dating," said that it can be difficult to navigate the dating service marketplace, but she offered these tips:
• Always do research on dating services and matchmakers before signing a contract with them.
• Ask dating and matchmaking companies about their success rates.
• Do not let lovesickness cloud your judgment. Remember that you have options. "Be willing to walk away," she said. "A lot of people think a matchmaker is their last option, and that if they don't sign up, they'll end up alone, but a matchmaker is never your final option."
• If you have mental health issues or other personal problems that you need to deal with, invest in a psychiatrist or life coach before you pay for a dating service or a matchmaker. "Try to become your best self," she said.
• Try niche dating sites that cater to your interests or your relationship goals.
• Seek out opportunities to meet new people. Sign up for activities that interest you. "Expand your social circle," she said. "Go on your own little personal adventure."
Florida Division of Consumer Services
If you have any questions or concerns as a consumer, you can contact the Florida Division of Consumer Services. Their primary mandate is to educate consumers, and they also handle consumer complaints. Those who wish to file complaints can do so via the Consumer Services website.
1-800-HELP-FLA (435-7352) for English speakers or 1-800-FL-AYUDA (352-9832) for Spanish speakers.
Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
Division of Consumer Services
Post Office Box 6700
Tallahassee, Florida 32399-6700