The Dating Blame

The Bay Area's Together Dating Services franchise regroups in the face of lawsuits and investigations

Looking for love is like skinning a dead cat: There's more than one way to go about it and every method is messy. The familiar strategies -- asking friends to set you up on blind dates, working out at a 24-hour Nautilus and hanging out in bars -- are notoriously unreliable.

So Martha MacIlvaine left nothing to chance when she began her search for a companion in 1992: The Piedmont widow paid the granddaddies of the matchmaking business, Together Dating Services, to find her a mate.

With some 140 franchises in the United States, Canada and Europe, 21-year-old Together is no fly-by-night operation. Nor is it cheap: Fees range from $1,200 for six matches to $3,600 for 35. But Together claims its service is a bargain.

"Typically, 76 percent of the matches we make are successful," says Stacey Veazey, who has worked at Together offices nationwide for more than six years. "And we're the only service that works with a Harvard psychologist. He developed a personality inventory exclusively for Together."

Then 62 years old, MacIlvaine was optimistic at the outset. Her husband of 37 years had died of lung cancer three years previously, and she was convinced that the $1,695 she plunked down would work for her.

"Together said they had a scientific system for finding a compatible match," MacIlvaine recounts. "I took a psychological test. I talked to my counselor for three hours and told her I was a liberal democrat who had a B.S. in public health nursing and liked opera, theater and classical music."

Dating services are supposed to earn their steep fees by screening prospective matches -- determining if he/she smokes, puts the cap on the toothpaste or likes long strolls in the moonlight. But when MacIlvaine's first match showed up at her door, she was appalled.

"He was a carnival operator with a high school education and an NRA membership," she says. "He smoked. I don't think I'm that particular, but we had nothing in common. Together just finds some guy who's about the same age and sets you up."

Over the next year and a half, the incensed MacIlvaine endured three dating counselors and only four of the promised 12 matches. While applying for a partial refund, she heard about a group called Victims Together; banding together against Together under the leadership of freelance writer and dissatisfied dater Roger Keeling, Victims Together had filed for damages against the dating service in Santa Clara County Small Claims court.

With stories like MacIlvaine's mounting, the state of Together's Bay Area affairs was a mess. The Better Business Bureau reveals that the San Jose location where MacIlvaine joined has logged an "unreliable" rating with a three-year "pattern of no response to customer complaints." And in March, the San Francisco office closed up shop and along with the San Jose and Walnut Creek offices was purchased under threat of bankruptcy by another owner, according to Liz Weir, assistant to Together's corporate president Brian Pappas.

Accusing the San Jose office of fraudulent and misleading advertising, breach of contract and violation of state laws regulating dating services, Victims Together's legal actions have bedeviled both the local franchise and the dating service's corporate office back in Framingham, Massachusetts. As of March 1995, with two sets of group claims settled and one more yet to be filed, the Santa Clara Small Claims Court had awarded 11 members of Victims Together (including MacIlvaine) some $17,000 in refunds and damages.

Together's corporate offices blame the troubles on Chris Nolan, the former owner of the Bay Area franchise. Liz Weir says the company has replaced Nolan with "an ace team of matchmakers" including Veazey, in effect "terminating" his franchise. (Efforts to reach Nolan were unsuccessful; his attorney, Steve Kaplan, said he did not know his client's whereabouts.) Currently the district manager of the Bay Area franchise, Veazey is confident that she'll have San Francisco up and running in six months and that the other offices will be operating smoothly within a matter of weeks.

But Together's heartaches may not be so easily soothed. By November 1994, the Contra Costa district attorney and the state attorney general sent letters to members of Victims Together notifying them that both agencies were "in the process of bringing formal action against" Together's corporate office and local franchiser Nolan. By March 1995, Curt Hoffman, the Contra Costa district attorney in charge of the investigation, says the process had expanded into a "serious statewide investigation" of all Together franchises. At the same time, attorneys general in both New Mexico and Arkansas have launched their own investigations of regional franchisees.

Others in the dating business say it's not surprising that Together runs up against the occasionally irate customer given the volatility of the commodity the company is seeking to provide (love) and its steep fees.

"If people are paying a lot of money, they're going to be unhappy if they don't fall in love," says David Kulman, who has made matches among gay San Francisco men for 21 years. Kulman, who charges only $90 for a three-month membership, says clients can be unrealistic.

"I just make sure they realize this isn't Fantasy Island and I'm not Ricardo Montalban.

 
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