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DOUGLAS YOUNG

Staff Reporter

Love it's the investment of the 90s.

Otherwise, why would Angelenos pay up to $20,000 for a shot at finding the romance of a lifetime?

If Christmas is the big season for retailers, Valentine's Day is the time that has L.A. matchmakers smiling all the way to the bank.

The Los Angeles area is home to at least 129 dating services, according to the Los Angeles Better Business Bureau. While many of the firms are legitimate and keep their customers satisfied, there are always some that leave their customers high and dry either unfulfilled or out of money altogether.

Prices vary, but dating services can cost anywhere from a few dollars for an ad in the personals to as much as $5,000 and even $10,000 for the most expensive services today.

Still, people who have gone through the process say the fees no matter how large are money well spent if they get results.

"People tell me it's so much money, and I tell them it's by far the best investment I've made," said Lauri Fitzsimmons, a 33-year-old casting director.

Fitzsimmons tried personal ads, blind dates, club-hopping and other tactics before signing on with Debra Winkler Personal Search of Beverly Hills, through which she met her husband, Doug.

"I was to the point where I thought I'd never get married. I was so jaded," she said.

Fitzsimmons and other matchmaker clients point out that high-end dating services are a shrewd investment for busy professionals who want to meet the perfect mate but lack the time and patience to go through all the usual rituals.

The Debra Winkler service, which qualifies as one of L.A.'s priciest, costs between $2,500 and $5,500 for a one- to two-year membership that typically includes between six and eight matches.

The company's 10 matchmakers handle about 5,000 singles at any given time, and that number has been growing at a rate of between 20 percent and 30 percent each year, estimates company founder and President Debra Winkler.

"When I started off six years ago, I only had a few hundred people. I was going to start this business part-time, but it became full-time by the first week," said Winkler, who claims to have brokered close to 500 marriages since she opened her firm.

She cited an unusual case where a man from Fairbanks, Alaska is paying between $5,000 and $10,000 for her to conduct a "special search" to find a match for him.

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