It may seem incredible that such women, and men - intelligent people in responsible jobs - will hand over cheques for hundreds of pounds as they sign a contract which for many has proved worth less than the paper it is written on. But they do. And only when they receive no introductions whatsoever, which is exactly what they have agreed may happen, do they start to see clearly through the desperation or loneliness that has driven them there, and think they might have been misled.
Selective Searches, describing itself as a 'discriminative' (sic) introduction agency with a 'discerning clientele of professional/business/academic/intellectual' people, took hundreds of pounds from many customers for precisely this service - quite legally.
It is difficult to question the man who ran the agency, Anthony David Lloyd, however, since he appears to have made a determined effort to go to ground in his home patch around Southampton. Neither he nor any other company representative turned up eight days ago when Zoomers Galore, the company behind Selective Searches, was summoned for the second time to Portsmouth Magistrates' Court to answer a charge under the Trade Descriptions Act.
Mr Lloyd either fails to receive or fails to answer mail sent to a run- down semi on the outskirts of Christchurch, Dorset, the last home address registered for him (along with various other directors) at Companies House. All his telephone numbers are unobtainable. The registered office of Zoomers Galore is a rented terrace house in Priory Park, a new estate in Locksheath, on the edge of Southampton - a house which a Department of Trade and Industry investigator, T C Gidman, called in to look into Selective Searches by a client last spring, assured the client was the home of the 'company secretary, Mr Anthony Lloyd', but said he could not accept the case for further inquiry. The house is now occupied by a young family unconnected with Selective Searches, who still receive a succession of callers.
Mr Lloyd's last solicitor, William Hazelton, of Hawkins Greenwood in Poole, refuses to take calls. Acclaim Business Services of Southampton, an address given in a county court action still in progress between Mr Lloyd and a client who stopped her cheques, says it ceased its connection with Zoomers Galore 'two or three weeks ago'.
It is not difficult to understand why Mr Lloyd, who is thought to use at least one pseudonym, should keep a low profile vis-a-vis introduction agencies. He was also connected with Apollo People in Ringwood, Hampshire, which went bust in 1990, leaving debts of pounds 21,000. The publishers Conde Nast have since written off pounds 4,300 for unpaid bills for Selective Searches in magazines including Country Living, Cosmopolitan and She.
Meanwhile the agency's ostensibly watertight contract has left a trail of people apparently powerless to recover their money. Both the police and the DTI have pointed out that clients agreed to clauses such as: 'The member accepts that the agency has indicated that the likely number (of introductions) the member is to receive may be nil.'
Marilyn Reynolds, a divorcee in her fifties, was impressed by the glossy brochure she received after responding to the agency's advertisement in a local newspaper. She agreed to a visit from a man who called himself Adrian Holmes and gave him a cheque for pounds 260 in the belief that she would meet some of the 'intelligent, highly eligible, warm, successful' people mentioned in the brochure. She was 90 minutes into her 'interview', which cost a non-refundable pounds 100, when her son came home. 'At that point he (Holmes) leapt up and said he would ring me in a week's time. After he had gone I thought, 'You bloody fool, you've been conned.' '
Mrs Reynolds drove from her home in Winchester to the company's registered office and concluded that the house in Priory Park was an accommodation address. The following day she stopped her cheques. She and Mr Holmes are now embroiled in a county court case, currently waiting for his next move, over the stopped cheques and Mrs Reynolds' counter-accusations of fraud and misrepresentation.
'I suppose snobbery basically attracted me,' Mrs Reynolds says. 'It looked as if it was a bit up-market.' In common with others, however, Mrs Reynolds had signed to say that she would not rely on any promises made in the brochure. The conditions of membership state: 'In joining the member is not relying upon any promises or representations other than those indicated herein.' These conditions also gave Selective Searches the right not to discuss its methods, its other clients, or details of searches it had done.
Ted Germann, a 64-year-old bachelor, of Clapham, south-west London, came up against the conditions when he called in the police and the DTI to investigate Selective Searches. They could only point out that he had signed 'explicit' documents before he paid his money. Mr Germann handed over more than pounds 300 to the man calling himself Adrian Holmes and waited for introductions from Selective Searches' claimed 600-strong membership; none came. After five months he wrote to the agency and asked for his money back, but received nothing.
Gill Courtnell, a Cambridge University administrator, lost pounds 800 to Selective Searches. Like Mr Germann, she believes Adrian Holmes and Anthony David Lloyd are the same man, who repeatedly told her he had no one suitable for her. 'I rang enough times to make me suspicious,' Mrs Courtnell says. 'It wasn't the impression he had given me at all. I'm somebody rational enough not to expect that there are loads of people waiting to meet me, but he certainly gave me to understand, as the brochure indicated, that there were people of all ages. I'm not a totally unattractive woman and I think I'm reasonably switched on, but at that time I was pretty vulnerable and thinking positively as opposed to suspiciously. But he just had nobody for me; there was nobody he felt would be suitable. He said there was plenty of time, that they hadn't promised anything immediately. I received nothing back and incurred legal bills as well. I was considerably out of pocket and very, very sour.'
Another woman who stopped her cheque later settled with 'Mr Holmes' out of court. She also ended up out of pocket, but less so than if she had let the cheque go through. Mrs Courtnell says there are other victims too embarrassed to speak out, who want to put their painful and expensive encounter with Selective Searches behind them.
Hampshire County Council's trading standards department is bringing a trade descriptions case against Zoomers Galore for claiming a link with the Office of Fair Trading - Selective Searches' headed notepaper says 'HM's Office of Fair Trading's Guidelines 1981' underneath the letterhead. Andrew Slee, of the Portsmouth office, says he is trying to ascertain whether the company has ceased trading. 'There is nothing in relation to the (Zoomers Galore) contract or the actual conduct of the business as such; this is the one aspect we are pursuing.'
The occupant of the Dorset address once given as that of Mr Lloyd has surrounded its garden with a barbed wire fence. A blue Sierra car similar to that driven by Mr Lloyd is under a tarpaulin behind a padlocked gate; mail arrives under several names; one neighbour says she gave up a cleaning job there because most of the rooms are kept locked, and another decided not to rent out her garage to the occupant of the house when he told her he wanted blackout curtains at the garage windows - 'he was very persuasive. In the end I had to write to him to say no.' But correspondence sent to this address for Mr Lloyd, who resigned as Zoomers Galore's company secretary in April last year, elicits no response.