Victims of dating service's high pressure pitch finally get payback, seven years later

SHOREWOOD (WITI) -- They were looking for romance, but got ripped off. Now, dozens of men and women who were coerced into signing up for a high-priced dating service are getting a pleasant surprise. It all started seven years ago with a FOX6 hidden camera investigation.

Elliot Doering is one of the many who shelled out six figures for a dating service membership. He still lives in the same, one-bedroom apartment in Shorewood. He still lives alone. He rides a bicycle and doesn't have a car.

"The likelihood of finding an individual who doesn`t have a car and is willing to date on a bus, it ain't happening,'" Doering said.

So when he saw a sign promising he could meet "Shorewood singles" in 2006, it caught his eye. The ad led him to Great Expectations in Wauwatosa, where a fast-talking sales rep pressured him into signing a confusing, long-term contract.

"You're goin' huh? What? Run that by me again," Doering said in an interview with FOX6 back in 2007.

The contract cost him nearly $6,000.

"It was crushing me," Doering said.

Worst of all, Dpering found the "local" dating service wasn't so local after all.

"No one in Shorewood. It was a complete scam," Doering said.

In 2007 and 2008, dozens of consumers told the FOX6 Investigators that they, too, got taken for thousands of dollars. FOX6's hidden cameras showed that the company's sales pitch was more like an interrogation.

From 2007:

Christen Conner / Great Expectations Director: "It's rude to stand up and walk out on a girl."

FOX6 Investigators Producer: "Yeah, but it's rude to keep someone here against their will, too."

Conner: "I'm not keeping you against your will."

FOX6 Investigators Producer: "Well, if I don't have my driver's license I can't leave without it, like you said."

Conner: "Sit down."

"How can you live with that, day in and day out? You're robbin' people for a living? It just ain't right, you know?" Doering said.

FOX6's investigation prompted a state investigation by the office of Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen. The Department of Justice sued Great Expectations for violating the state's Do Not Call list, misrepresenting the number of members, and for using "high pressure, oppressive tactics" to get people to sign contracts.

"They specifically prey on people under circumstances where they`re going to make an emotional decision, and they may be hesitant to tell anybody about it," Van Hollen said.

After the lawsuit was filed in 2009, Great Expectations fled the state, and Doering wondered if he would ever get his money back.

"I didn't hear nothing after that. I figured well, maybe he's fighting it and he lost," Doering said.

Five years after the lawsuit was filed and eight years after he signed the contract - Doering got a letter informing him that the state had won the case. The company headed by a Texas millionaire named John Meriggi had agreed to pay $500,000 in fines and restitution.

"And they says, 'yup, we got all the forms. Check's in the mail!'" Doering said.

The Vietnam vet got a check for $5,909.

"It`s nice that we can actually do something about it -- that individual consumers can feel money in their pocket, relief for them," Van Hollen said.

In all, the state has paid out more than $300,000 to 100 victims, and sent a message to any business looking to cash in on someone else's weakness.

"You're not going to be able to close your company and flee the state and through the passage of time, get away with this sort of wrongdoing," Van Hollen said.

"It boils down to good versus evil, and good usually triumphs. Eventually," Doering said.

The Arizona Attorney General's Office also secured a $500,000 judgment against Great Expectations back in 2008. Since then, the dating service has closed its doors in Arizona, Wisconsin and several other states. According to the company's website, there are still eight existing centers in four states - Colorado, Florida, Ohio and Texas.