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Be a savvy consumer when looking for love online

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  • Consumer complaints about dating services are rising, according to one report
  • Experts say don't get tricked by advertising to make a decision
  • Do your research and check out the cancellation policy
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By Jen Haley
CNN
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(CNN) -- Looking for love this Valentine's day? Make sure Cupid's arrow doesn't hit your wallet.

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That's exactly what happened to Kate, a single woman in Houston, Texas. (She didn't want her real name to be used.) Kate joined an online Christian dating site after a friend recommended it. She thought she had met the man of her dreams ... an artist from London.

"He sent these wonderful pictures. This guy was quoting scripture. We were praying everyday," she says. "It was almost like a dream guy."

They talked on the phone several times a day, everyday. He was engaging. He gave great advice. He was even supposed to visit her parents in Houston. But then, he started asking for money, with promises to pay her back. In two months, Kate wired him a total of $2,000. Not to mention the phone bill she was stuck with for $1,500. To this day she has not seen him -- or her money.

And sadly, Kate isn't alone. Complaints against matchmaking services and online dating sites are at an all-time high according to a February report from the Better Business Bureau. In fact, complaints have risen 73 percent in 2006 from the previous year. This year complaints are on track to reach record breaking levels.

The Better Business Bureau tracked complaints from both matchmaking services and online dating sites. Matchmaking services are companies that promise to introduce people to local singles that meet certain criteria. The price tag can be thousands of dollars.

Not all complaints are as serious as Kate's. Complaint No. 1 about matchmaking is, well, bad matches. Singles were set up with were smokers, people who weren't religious or lived too far away. In some cases, matches were already married! Poor customer service and high pressure sales tactics also topped the list of complaints. People claimed they were yelled at, ignored or told they were "too picky." Sometimes it was just a matter of not setting customers up with a certain amount of promised dates.

Online dating sites also drew criticism from customers. Generally these dating services require that you sign a membership and pay a monthly fee. More than 63 percent of complaints were about accounts that were automatically renewed after a contract or trial period expired. Some people felt they were tricked into a subscription even if they just clicked on the trial option. Other common complaints include dissatisfaction with the company and its process

Granted, it may be no surprise that complaints are on the rise. After all, online dating sites have grown. It's projected there will be over 12 million online dating subscribers this year compared with 10 million subscribers two years ago according to Jupiter research, an online research group.

But before you go looking for virtual romance, there are some things you need to keep in mind.

First, don't get duped by the advertising. Stay away from claims like, "an exclusive network of people," or phrases like "beautiful singles just like you." Scrutinize the quality of potential matches instead being lured by gimmicks. And be wary of high pressure sales tactics. Sales associates may say the low price is a Valentine's Day special in order to get you to sign a contract immediately. Don't be rushed. Instead, take the contract home and read all the fine print. It's a good idea to sign up for a free trial, just to see what the service is all about. But make sure you know how to get out of that free trial in case it's not what you wanted.

And know what you're paying for. A lot of online sites automatically renew memberships. So, don't assume that you'll stop getting billed once the contract runs out. You may need to call the company to keep from getting billed again.

It's also a good idea to create a separate e-mail account to keep your dating mail. This will help you protect your identity and manage your messages.

To find out whether there are any complaints against the company you're dealing with, go to the Better Business Bureau's site at www.bbb.org. And to read reviews of these online dating sites from subscribers, check out www.eDateReview.com.

Remember, there is no law requiring dating sites verify the identity of members or to run criminal background checks on them. So you'll want to look into the dating service's policies regarding background checks or account suspensions for suspicious behavior. But take heart, there may be more legislation may be on the way. Last month New Jersey became the first state to enact a law that requires sites to disclose whether they do background checks on members.

When it comes to vetting dating services, don't let your guard down. "You are very vulnerable. You think you are safe," Kate says "but you can be whoever you want behind the computer." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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