Gabriela Buich of Tiburon is starting over. A divorced mother of six, she tiptoed back into the dating scene - and found it treacherous.
"Going into the dating world felt scary,'' said Buich, who last dated before the advent of the internet, online dating and mobile apps. "When I got online to do the whole match thing, it was overwhelming."
She tried those mobile apps and dating websites, poring over thousands of profiles, waiting to see if anyone swiped right on her picture. It led to a few dates, some awkward, some stressful. None lasting.
"This ad popped up on my computer screen,'' Buich said. It was an ad for Silicon Valley Matchmakers, billing itself as a local dating service - matching singles the old fashioned way -- with a personal matchmaker.
Buich, who runs her own consulting business, thought it would be wise to pay someone else to pore over profiles.
"Oh, I'm going to get support in this part of my life that feels hard,'' she said.
Buich went to the local sales office. She says a salesman spent hours with her, going over scores of questions aimed at pinpointing her criteria for a good match. She asked for someone athletic, divorced, who loves children.
"Sophisticated, educated, financially stable,'' she recalls.
She filled out a survey with more than 100 questions, covering everything from personality to religion. The only thing missing was pictures; the service doesn't show clients photos of potential dates.
"He said oh I have people in mind already for you,'' she says. "The men pay twice what you do, that way we can be sure the commitment is much more serious monetarily and you know we check references.'' She said he promised one date per month so she paid $3,600 upfront for four months of matchmaking services.
"The first guy never called,'' Buich recalls. "The next two never called either."
The dating service had recommended letting "the gentleman make the initial call,'' but she says she rarely heard from matchmakers and it was weeks before she got one date.
And when she went to meet him at an upscale dinner house, she says, she almost ducked out.
"I walked in and I could see who it was and I thought to myself, 'I don't want to be mean but if I had my way I'd tell the hostess tell the gentleman I'm not gonna join him for dinner,'' Buich recalls. "He was wearing a bowling shirt, his hair was long and he was quite heavy. I don't know but in my world, that is not sophisticated or athletic. Nowhere near a match."
Gabriela said she had two more dates with men she would never have chosen on her own.
She was out $3,600 and unhappy. The company says it provided her with four additional months of services for free, introduced her to 10 men in all and she accepted seven as "matches" for potential dates if both agree to meet.
"When you go in for the sales pitch, yeah, they're great,'' said Shirley Keay of San Jose. She too signed up with Silicon Valley Matchmakers and says she was promised one tailor-made date per month. She signed a $2200 contract for eight months of matchmaking services.
At first she said none of the matchmakers contacted her with potential dates. She says she was finally was matched with a man who was a devout Christian.
"I said, 'did they tell you I'm an atheist?' '' she recalls. "He said 'uh, nooooo.'"
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Shirley says matchmakers rarely contacted her and she had to keep pestering the company to find dates, even after the company gave her four extra months on her contract.
Shirley and Gabriela both wondered why their matchmakers were calling from different area codes than the local office.
They were surprised to find out Silicon Valley Matchmakers is actually part of a network of matchmaking companies based, not in Silicon Valley, but in Oklahoma.
The companies are operated by Brotherton Holdings in Broken Arrow, Ok, They have similar names like East Bay Matchmakers, Monterey Bay Matchmakers, Salt Lake City Matchmakers, Las Vegas Matchmakers. Their websites look similar, some using the same stock photos and testimonials, all promising personalized service from local matchmakers.
The company declined an on-camera interview. A spokesperson said the company has fulfilled its obligations to all of its clients. The contract protects the company saying it "cannot guarantee a specific number of introductions," "does not guarantee an introduction will result in a date,'' "cannot make any satisfaction guarantee,'' and "clients are not making a decision to join based on representations by its agents."
Silicon Valley Matchmakers says it did offer to waive the $1,200 Shirley still owed on her contract, but only if she agreed to take down her negative reviews online, which they called inaccurately.
Shirley and Gabriela asked 7 On Your Side - do they have the right to demand a refund?
"This is a buyer beware situation,'' said UC Hastings Law Professor David Levine. "It's a very subjective thing. Who is it who's going to create a spark in you?"
Still, Shirley took her complaint to small claims court. Just before the hearing, Silicon Valley Matchmakers agreed to waive the $1200 she still owed on her contract and dropped its demand to take down her reviews.
Another woman from Milpitas, who asked ABC7 not to use her name, also sued the company in small claims court saying Silicon Valley Matchmakers gave misleading information about dates. For example, she said her matchmaker described one date as a real estate agent with a large income, but in fact he was an Uber driver. She claimed her matchmakers gave her false information about ethnicity, height, hobbies and financial stability of three more potential dates. She claims one date hurt her feelings so badly it affected her job.
The judge awarded her a full refund of her $3,500 but did not award triple damages as she had requested.
In a statement, Brotherton Holdings said it "relies on personal information provided by clients'' and "if a client lies about personal traits, attributes or profession,...that is out of our control."
It also said: "All businesses that provide professional services to individuals have clients and or customers who are dissatisfied with the services provided. We are no different. But, we pledge to, and in most cases, do provide the best possible service to our clients. For those clients who are unhappy, we make every effort to provide the service accommodation required to make them happy."
Brotherton said fewer than 3 percent of thousands of Northern California clients have filed formal complaints and it has many satisfied Bay Area clients who did not want to be identified for privacy reasons, It provided ABC7 with emails it said were from some satisfied customers, like "Sylvia" , who wrote:
"Steve and I hit it off famously right from the start when we met. He is engaging, sweet, attentive, very complimentary...thank you for a wonderful match."
And "Charles" wrote: Right from the beginning Carole and I were seeking the same dream... we found that we had a lot in common and became friends at first and then our relationship blossomed and we fell in love..."
Our legal expert says you should read any dating service contract carefully. Those are the only terms you can count on.