Lonely hearts `risk danger' by using agencies

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The Independent Online

The search for the perfect partner through dating agencies may be putting women at risk, according to a new report by the Consumers' Association.

It says that agencies are failing to vet potential clients properly, and also warns of rapid turnover of agencies and of hidden costs for those who join.

The report in the association's magazine Which?, published today, said that many dating agencies did not vet their clients and gave out names, addresses, numbers and in some cases photographs to complete strangers.

"Lax security checks by introduction agencies mean that dating can be a risky business. If firms don't really know who their clients are, lonely hearts may be dating with danger," said Paul Kitchen, senior editor.

The dangers were highlighted in July last year when a 35-year-old woman doctor was murdered by a man she met through a private advertisement in a magazine. Her murderer, Brian Vale, was said to be an "inveterate user" of dating agencies.

Among the agencies singled out for criticism was Dateline, one of Britain's largest with up to 40,000 on its books. The report said it did not ask for proof of a client's identity.

For a fee of pounds 150, it matched the client with five people from a computer and sent them a print-out containing some names, addresses and telephone numbers of potential dates.

But Dateline said it had thorough vetting procedures and did not give out information without the consent of the client. "What they are saying is totally untrue," said John Patterson, the managing director. "We check their identity ourselves. We ask for their name, address and phone number and then feed it into our computer. It takes 35 seconds to see if they are telling the truth. I admit we do not tell the client this is going on, which might give the impression we are not checking.

"We write our own computer programmes, using telephone directories and the like, and our system is probably as good as any that a police station will have."

He admitted that somebody could assume a friend's identity, but said: "All the information is sent out by post so it would be addressed to the friend. On the form the client is asked whether they want their name, address or number given out, so we are not just handing these out to anyone."

Which? also found that the turnover of dating agencies was often extremely rapid, leaving clients' money at risk. Of the 29 agencies the association contacted, seven have since stopped trading.

When companies went bust, there was little chance of recovering membership fees unless the client had paid by credit card.

It cited the example of Jeremy Kirk, who paid more than pounds 1,000 to join Together Introductions in September 1993. He was told he would meet 12 members. A year later the agency had ceased trading. Mr Kirk had met only three people.