Southern Maryland bars are "no place to meet somebody," according to John Willard Greene, a 35-year-old bachelor from Accokeek.
So, when he saw a television commercial for a dating service that promised to introduce its clients to one person each week, Greene signed up and handed over $300 for a six-month membership.
In the first three months the service supplied Greene, a self-employed home contractor, with the names and telephone numbers of only three women. One of them was a wrong number, and the two women he reached said they were not interested in dating, Greene recalled recently.
"It was a rip-off right from the start," said Greene of his membership in a dating service in Bethesda that has since changed management. "They promised me the world and gave me absolutely nothing."
In the Washington area, complaints like Greene's have mushroomed as the area's 1.1 million unattached adults rely in increasing numbers on computer matchups instead of Cupid.
Some professional matchmaking is overpriced, according to local officials and consumer activists who say too many area dating services reap money from the lovelorn without providing the services they seek. In some cases, consumers risk paying advance membership fees of up to $1,500 to agencies that often fall short of their promises or drop out of business.
"Matchmakers have been around since the Bible, but they're not all on the up and up," said Montgomery County Del. Judith Toth, a Democrat. She heads a movement seeking legislation that would allow the state to monitor dating services because, as she puts it, "Some of them are fly-by-night."
At least three local dating services have gone out of business in the past year, leaving more than 500 area residents with expensive memberships that were suddenly worthless.
"Dating services come and go. They say they've got 2,000 members and then they're out of business," said Joan Hendrickson, owner of Georgetown Connection video dating service in the District and recent founder of the National Association of Single Persons.
There are no figures on how many dating services operate here or how many members they have, according to Hendrickson, because "anyone can put an ad in the paper." At least 18 now advertise in local magazines and newspapers.
Many current and former members of the services complain of high-pressure sales pitches from "counselors" who conduct long in-home interviews before revealing rates that can range from $50 a date to $1,500 for 18 months of "unlimited" introductions.
Other consumers have charged that they are arbitrarily introduced to people who have none of the personal attributes or interests they specified or that they don't receive the number of introductions they are guaranteed.
"If they couldn't find somebody, they should've just given me my money back," Greene said recently. "They string you along and they string you along. They want to exhaust your time and then say goodbye to you."
Greene was one of the more fortunate ones. County consumer officials got him a $200 refund.
Some dating service owners say standards are needed to keep unethical operators out of the business.
"Whenever you have an industry that's grown as quickly as this has, you need some kind of regulation," said Michael D. Gelber, president of Maritronics Inc. computer dating service in Falls Church.
However, in Maryland last week legislators killed a bill -- similar to legislation protecting members of health spas -- that was sought to monitor dating services by requiring them to post $50,000 surety bonds and register with the state attorney general's office.
"They obviously didn't understand the severity of the situation," said Toth, the bill's sponsor, promising to reintroduce it next year.
Local consumer officials say the complaints they receive about dating agencies represent only a symptom of what they believe is a far greater problem.
"We get the calls from people saying, 'I'm having problems with my dating service,' but when it comes to the written complaints, we don't get them," said Dave Johnson of the District's Better Business Bureau.
"People are embarrassed that they went to a dating service," said Montgomery County consumer specialist Susan Cohen.
Consumer activists support government action because of the growing appeal and acceptance of dating services among the newly separated, those new in town, people fed up with singles bars and people bored by church socials. Among those whom local dating services count as members are teachers, owners of small businesses, executives, congressional aides, nurses, domestics and construction workers.
"I run a business, I work late, I don't like to hang out in bars," explained Hal Horenberg, a Silver Spring insurance executive and a member of Lifestyles International dating service, which has offices in Maryland and Virginia. "I just figured it's another way to meet somebody."
Often those who complain find that the agencies put the onus of failure on the client, in some cases citing a client's physical shortcomings or attitude. And many who become dissatisfied and seek refunds find it a protracted experience that can require outside help.
The Montgomery County Consumer Affairs Office negotiated a settlement with Liaison dating service last summer after it closed down after six months of operation. About 218 former members shared $11,000 in partial refunds. In another case, members of Turning Point dating service were transferred to another company, although some had asked for refunds, according to Cohen.
Those in the dating business argue that because of the nature of their services and the general lack of knowledge of how they work, an aggressive approach is necessary to lure clients. Requiring advance fees, they say, gives clients who are impatient or unnecessarily discouraged the impetus to continue with the program.
In addition, many clients have unrealistic expectations or are inflexible in the physical and other personal attributes they seek in others, the owners say. They contend that it is part of the professional matchmaker's job to point out these problems.
While dating services generally serve people who are looking for long-term relationships, operators say they make no guarantees that everyone will find love. Still, some agencies boast of hundreds of marriages over the years among people who met through their services.
In problem cases, some services prefer to extend memberships or put them "on hold" until more compatible people come into the program.
When Joan Hendrickson started her agency nine years ago, male members outnumbered women three to one. Hendrickson said she sent her grown daughters on dates with clients who were looking for serious relationships, not escorts. She would not do that today, she said.
Many in the industry acknowledge the need for standards, if not regulation. Many reputable agencies will not accept all applicants. Hendrickson said her company discourages men under the age of 28 because there are not enough women seeking men that age. She discourages women over 45 for the same reason.
Gelber said he recently offered refunds to two 45-year-old women who were extremely overweight because he could not find them any willing introductions. "We did nothing for them," Gelber conceded. "We gave them their money back and thanked them for letting us try."
Cohen also would like dating services to disclose members' communicable diseases to prospective dates rather than leave that decision to the member.
Meanwhile, some former members of dating services have begun to question whether privacy can be assured by businesses that collect and computerize data from clients on such things as income, religion, drug use and sexual preference.
"I'm afraid of it getting into the wrong hands," an Alexandria woman said of information she supplied a dating service before it closed. The woman asked not to be identified. "I don't want people to know I went to a dating service," she said.