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The Mail-Order-Bride Trade Is Flourishing
The global economic downturn has only been a boon to the international business of helping single men get hitched, though scams abound, and some say the industry is not that different from human trafficking
By Teddy Wayne
Times are good for Joseph Weiner. The former investment banker and Wharton MBA lives with his wife of 27 years in a three-bedroom London townhouse. When he isn't lounging in his private garden, Weiner spends his free time playing tennis at the exclusive Hurlingham Club and gliding around town in his Lexus. Though he doesn't claim to be a philosopher, Weiner's insight into the human heart has led to a lucrative second career as a matchmaker and packager of amorous adventures. "Every guy wants a beautiful younger woman," he explains. "It's the nature of us."
Fourteen years ago, Weiner, 73, founded Hand-In-Hand, a London-based matchmaking agency that charges male customers up to $2,000 for a "supervised courtship"—a process that matches them with younger Eastern European women. Hand-In-Hand has since grown into a multinational operation with 30 satellite offices from the U.S. to Abu Dhabi. "We're still opening up franchises, and business is booming," says Weiner in his thick New York accent. "Financial problems are the biggest cause of divorce. There are more financial problems now. There are more people available!"
In the age of globalization, the international matchmaking industry—still known in many circles as the mail-order bride trade—is thriving like never before. The Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit organization in Falls Church, Va., that protects immigrant women, estimates that the number of mail-order marriages in the U.S. more than doubled between 1999 and 2007, when up to 16,500 such unions were sealed.
International matchmakers are now a growing segment of the U.S. online dating industry, which, according to market research firm IBISWorld, racked up more than $2 billion in 2010 revenue. Since the recession began, "we've seen more men sign up," says John Adams, the co-founder of Phoenix-based A Foreign Affair, which charges $4,000 for the right to attend champagne-soaked "socials" in various Eastern European cities. The company estimates it sparked nearly 1,000 engagements this year. "Men evaluate their lives a little more closely when the economy becomes more difficult. They look at what's really important to them and try to find that one person they want to spend the rest of their lives with." Adams would know. He met his wife, Tanya, at a 1997 St. Petersburg social sponsored by his own company.
Amid the proliferation of dating websites and matchmaking reality shows, venturing abroad for love has taken on a more acceptable mien. International matchmakers have succeeded, in part, by targeting middle-aged men who find dating troublesome—men who, according to Weiner, "don't have the money to go out on dates and go on weekends to Vegas and Atlantic City. They want someone to take care of them." While they might not have the means to secure a more conveniently located trophy wife, they must have enough money to travel to Eastern Europe and spend thousands for a shot at eternal bliss. Though love may be priceless, notes Weiner, "$2,000 to get a beautiful woman—it's a bargain!" According to David L. Knabel, the owner and president of Louisville-based matchmaker A Volga Girl, "It's no different than a dating site in the U.S.—except it's international marriage."
In 2007, Ben Baligad hit a dry spell. The divorced 53-year-old eschewed the San Diego dating scene after discovering Ukraine's favorable gender ratio—0.92 males for every female between ages 15 and 64, according to the State Statistics Committee of Ukraine. After enlisting companies such as Global Ladies and Army of Brides, the insurance salesman made three trips to Ukraine. The third time was the charm: Baligad met his potential future wife, Natalya Chuprina, 18 years his junior. "I'm planning on bringing her to the U.S. as soon as I get my finances straight," he says.
By pulling on the heartstrings of single men, the mail-order bride industry has at its disposal untold financial opportunities. In addition to membership fees—which run $29.95 per month at A Foreign Affair—and "romance tours" that can cost suitors thousands, many sites charge between $6 and $8 to translate each e-mail exchanged between interlocutors, and even more for phone and instant message translation. Some companies, like Hand-In-Hand, have also expanded into same-sex international matchmaking. "We've been doing gay business for about a year and a half," boasts Weiner.
Though every site claims to police its users, scams are common. Les Vancil, the founder of Easy Ukraine, an Ohio-based site targeting men traveling abroad for matchmaking opportunities, says the problems lie with the Eastern European agencies contracted to recruit women. Vancil asserts these companies post fake profiles, ratchet up prices for translation, and sometimes impersonate women to ask for money.
When customers complain, matchmakers "wipe their hands clean," says Steve Ewald, a Detroit accountant who stopped using such sites after several unsatisfying experiences. They blame the agencies, he claims, who blame the women. Ben Baligad says the agency that helped him communicate with his girlfriend skimmed 10 percent off the money he sent her for train fare and phone bills. He also suspects it posed as her in e-mails demanding he pay for a pricey apartment rental for his visit. He hasn't brought it up with his girlfriend, though. "I think she thinks I will get angry," he says.
The arrangement can be far worse for the women involved. After a few highly publicized murders of women brought to America through international matchmakers, the U.S. passed the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act of 2005 (IMBRA). The statute requires background checks on U.S. citizens before communication via the matchmakers. Those who fail to comply cannot obtain a Form I-129F, Petition for Alien Fiancé(e).
However, couples can get around this obstacle by claiming they met through other avenues. There also tends to be little enforcement of IMBRA when the agencies are based outside the U.S. (Hand-In-Hand, for example, is registered in St. Kitts.) "The mail-order bride industry is a softer version of human trafficking," says Sonia Ossorio, executive director of the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women. Ossorio also acknowledges that some relationships work out—but perhaps not in a way that would please Betty Friedan. "A lot of people who are attracted to it are just looking for a woman who's docile and obedient," she says.
For some companies, such submissiveness is a selling point. Hand-In-Hand's website trumpets the fact that its females are "unspoiled by feminism." Company founder Weiner argues this form of chauvinism—like the mail-order bride business itself—is economically motivated. "You take a beautiful woman from the Czech Republic and you bring her into your home, she does all your cooking and cleaning and ironing," he says. "At the end of the day, the service is free." Hand-In-Hand estimates the potential savings of a homemaking wife at $150 per week.
Women from economically troubled regions also take part in order to secure an American visa. "People around the world still view the U.S. as a highly favorable place to live," says A Foreign Affair's Adams. His wife agrees. "I worked a lot before, but then I was waking up at nine in the morning and was like, 'Whoa, what do I have to do now?' " says Tanya Adams, who remains a supporter of the company. "I even recommended it to my niece."
Perhaps love can always find a way. Most sites claim a 75 percent or greater success rate, and this boundless quest for passion—one inflamed by hard times—continues to benefit matchmaking entrepreneurs. "Wonderful times for me," Weiner says. "I can't complain."