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LOOKING FOR LOVE What's the best value in matchmaking services?

Money can't buy love, but sometimes it can give Cupid a motivational nudge. In fact, while fewer people are enlisting paid help to find that certain someone, the industry itself is booming -- taking in more money than ever.

In 2008, online dating revenues alone hit $1.18 billion, according to analysts at eMarketer.com.

But just what will all that money get you? MoneySmart took a closer look at matchmaking services to find out.

Buffalo Niagara Introductions

What you get: Personal attention from nationally renowned matchmaker, dating coach and owner Patti Novak. Novak displayed her intuitive, tough love skills in A&E's 2007 reality show "Confessions of a Matchmaker" and recently published the self-help book "Get Over Yourself! How to Get Real, Get Serious, and Get Ready to Find True Love."

"Everybody says, 'Oh, she was on TV and she's an author now, I could never afford her,' " said Novak. "But I haven't raised my prices in 10 years!"

Novak personally screens and background checks all candidates. When applicants are accepted and paired according to her research and instincts, matches are described to each other and a date is set. Last names, addresses, phone numbers and workplaces are not revealed.

Distinctive features: Everything is done in person. Novak takes care of all the awkward moments, such as asking for, turning down or accepting the next date between matches. Members aren't even allowed to exchange contact information until after the third date, sidestepping that awkward I'll-give-him-my-number-so-he-doesn't-feel-bad-but-then-ignore-his-calls moment.

If the fish aren't biting, Novak straightforwardly yet tenderly explains why, relaying feedback from matches and coaching through the problem. After one match fled an otherwise pleasant woman with horrendous table manners, Novak gave her a dining etiquette lesson to get her back on track.

Call 694-8585 or visit www.BuffaloNiagaraIntro.com. Offices are at 1868 Niagara Falls Boulevard in Tonawanda.

What it costs: Both packages -- one lasting six months, the other lasting one year -- are priced under $1,000. Both offer the option to freeze membership in order to pursue a match exclusively. The initial interview is free.

It's Just Lunch

What you get: An initial phone interview to gauge your personality and what you want in a mate. Based on the interview, another employee will match you with candidates on file and set up a date.

Show up, usually for lunch or post-work drinks, and exchange contact information if the spirit moves you. If not, call the agency with feedback so they can fine-tune your next match accordingly.

Call 839-2787 or visit www.Its-JustLunch.com.

Distinctive features: It's Just Lunch is a chain with independent franchises, none locally. A call to the local number linked with a post office box on Grand Island is directed to offices in South Florida. All operations take place there or at its California headquarters.

What it costs: About $1,500 for 12 to 16 matches.

>eHarmony.com

What you get: Answer a series of personality test questions online, ranging from "I often leave a mess in my room," to "I often feel plotted against." eHarmony then matches members according to criteria culled from clinical tests and scientific research.

Distinctive features: eHarmony rejects applicants with such frequency, Chemistry.com bases its entire sales pitch on taking in eHarmony castoffs.

Applicants are routinely kicked out of the dating pool when personality test answers indicate emotional instability or a lack of character. Others are rejected if they reveal they are currently married, separated or have been married more than twice, according to eHarmony blog at Pinoy.ca.

What it costs: Set up a profile and view matches free. Subscribe for full access, including communication and photos. Prices range from $119.85 for three months to $239.40 for one year.

>Match.com

What you get: Standard dating Web site fare. Post a profile describing yourself and look at others. E-mail or instant message those that strike your fancy.

As with most Internet dating sites, there is no moderator present to verify or authenticate user posts and pictures, or to weed out the crazies.

Distinctive features: Virtual "flirt" and "wink" features. Smart Search lets you search for keywords to find commonalities with others on the site.

Opt for the Match Guarantee with a six-month membership, and if sparks don't fly, get six more months free. In order to cash in, though, you'll need to follow a list of rules and initiate or respond to at least five e-mail communications per month.

What it costs: Create a profile and look at others for free, but you'll need to upgrade if you want to see pictures or communicate in any way. That will cost anywhere from $34.99 for one month to $107.94 for six months.

An extra $40 for Profile Pro nets a professional "consultant" who will look at your profile and suggest changes to make it more appealing. Add cell phone capability through MatchMobile for another $4.99.

>OkCupid.com

What you get: Full access to all photo and posting features, including Test Editor software, used to create personalized compatibility tests for other members.

Software guides you through the making of your own personality test criteria, where you'll come up with a list of questions and multiple-choice answers, including the one you decide is "right." The scoring system you create will reveal (to you and the potential match) how compatible the answers determine the test taker to be.

Interesting questions noted in user quizzes included, "How often do you wash your bath towels?" (the answer pool ranged from "After every use" to "When it starts smelling") and "Do you generally smile at small children who cross your path?"

Distinctive features: An "Ok-Stalker" function lets you see who has visited your profile. "QuickMatch!" capability instantly gathers and displays other users it considers compatible according to your profile criteria. Tests can be integrated into Facebook, MySpace and other social networking profiles.

What it costs: It doesn't. OkCupid is free. Just remember, free means anyone can join, so there are millions of users without any oversight or protection against fraud or other dangers.

>TangoPersonals

What you get: There is no third-party help in the selection process -- no matchmaking or background checks. Just the ability to connect with others over the phone.

Record an extensive personal greeting and listen to greetings from other candidates. Leave messages for people whose voice profiles interest you or chat live with folks on the system at the same time.

The Colorado-based TangoPersonals has local calling numbers throughout the country. Call 587-6600 or visit www.TangoPersonals.com.

Distinctive Features: It's great for folks who aren't Internet savvy. But if you're interested in "Relationships" or "Dating and Friends," you'll want to stay away from the "Intimate" and "Tango Wild" categories, where things can get racy.

What it costs: From $34.99 for 60 minutes to $189.99 for 525 minutes. First-time users get 50 percent off.

e-mail: schristmann@buffnews.com

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