NAPLES — Looking for love? How about an exciting, overseas adventure? Both, it turns out, are just a few clicks away. "If you feel lonely, wishing to wed and create a family, we offer you the possibility of combining an unforgettable journey in an Asian country with marriage to a sweet woman," one website promises.
Welcome to the "supermarket of love," where your age and past don't matter. All that counts is that you're "ready to open your heart." That, and your wallet, of course — to pay the agencies which specialize in these international match-making trips.
But what could be easier? All you have to do is browse a catalog, choose the girl you like, and pay up. The agency takes care of the rest: a ready-made package, perfect for someone who's been unable to find a girlfriend, a fling or a wife
Largely because of such "services," mixed marriages between Italians and foreigners have tripled over the past 15 years, according to the Association of Italian Marriage Lawyers. But there is a risk: a customer might find himself, at the time of the meeting, looking at a different or less attractive young lady than the one pictured in the catalog.
Older men in particular — those who may not be very tech savvy — choose only experienced, well-paid professionals like matrimonioasiatico.it, which specializes in "Asian marriages" and, as I discovered, is open to disabled people. But it's not cheap. Just to be included in the database and have access to the listings can cost up to 3,000 euros.
An all-inclusive package
This particular website is run by a recruiting agency in Naples. I sent a message and received a reply within a few hours. "We organize regular meetings in the Philippines, where you will be able to meet the chosen girl, get to know each other, meet her family and get married on site," writes owner Carlo Niro. "There will be an initial online phase that will last around two months, during which you get to know each other remotely before the actual meeting."
As promised, I receive profiles on a number of women — all of them are "single, never married, with no children," explains Niro. Exactly as I had requested.
For research purposes, I've assumed an alter ego: someone who's supposedly alone and disappointed with his fellow countrywomen. I want a polite, clean partner who can look after the house, I explain. No problem, I'm assured. The agency owner says he'll find me a sweet, polite and caring girl — someone who's "very different from the Italians."
I paid 2,500 euros for two years. Their only commitment is to send you 10 profiles of girls.
And unlike the complicated, real-life process of finding the right partner, Niro 's "all-inclusive" online package appears extremely simple: They offer on-site assistance, handle the bureaucracy documents and provide interpreters. They even organize a small reception with buffet for the guests. And a photographer. And a wedding dress!
Obviously, it comes at a price. But it's nothing "compared to Italian prices," the organizer insists. "It's much cheaper...you'll see. It depends on what you want to do. Our fee to help you marry a Filipino girl is 1,000 euros, which you pay upon your return, after the wedding."
I go further and I pretend to be disabled. "In any case, we'll find the right match for you," Niro assures me. "I've already done it with other disabled people." With no scruples or respect for other people's privacy, he sends me pictures of recent successful marriages to convince me. Among the images of elderly men in exotic locations is one of a man I'll call "P," who — despite a slight handicap — managed to "match" and take home a Filipino woman.
An Italian matchmaking website that specializes in finding your "other half" — Photo: Officine Del Cuore
Scams and schemes
Authorities regularly fine companies that use misleading ads to entice customers, messages that seem to come from beautiful women seeking a soul mate but in reality lead to an agency that requires you to first sign a contract.
Data collected by the Postal and Communications Police confirm that these kinds of digital matchmaking schemes are widespread. The same is true for so-called "sextortion" scams, which are harder to investigate because of the shame factor (victims rarely file complaints).
This is the story of a gentleman who was fooled by the ads and then sought help from the consumer defense association ADICO:
"I paid 2,500 euros for two years. Their only commitment is to send you 10 profiles of girls. You give your 'like' or not. But if you don't like any of the profiles, it's not their business! Often they'll send you three profiles of pretty women and one ugly one, but then it turns out that the pretty girls aren't available."
The Supreme Court of Cassation, Italy's highest court of appeal, ruled in 2006 that marriage agencies are equivalent to business brokers because they carry out an economic mediation. As such, they must request administrative authorization in the city where they operate.
The Court was clear: "The need for authorization is more stringent in a field such as that of dates with the purpose of marriage, in which the risk of abuse of credibility of others is equally (if not more) strong than that of more strictly economic affairs."
'It's good to be discreet'
To understand how it works I go in person to Naples, the epicenter of the "girlfriend at all costs" business. There I visit an agency called Officine del Cuore (Offices of the Heart), where I play the part of the introvert, a guy who doesn't have many friends, has just moved to southern Italy, and can't find a girlfriend.
"We are just right for you," says the agency's owner. "We have hundreds of unmarried girls and women for you to meet. Nowadays cell phones and WhatsApp make us stupid. And for those who live in a big city like you, it's not easy. It's good to be discreet. That's important these days."
He uses reassuring tones as he speaks to me in his sixth-floor office a few steps away from Garibaldi central train station. "With the potential dangers of chats, you never know who you'll find. We, in contrast, know all of our members and guarantee them," he says.
There's no assurance that you'll ever have a date, that any of the contacts will actually want to meet you.
"Do you know how many people came through here and then got married? Even the youngest come to us," the agency owner adds. "Finding love these days is very difficult. That's why we've been in business for 10 years. We provide a complete service... Your destiny is to marry a young girl from Campania [the region where Naples sits]. I will introduce you to women aged 26-27 and you will settle down."
The formula is simple: after registering, you pay a fee and within 72 hours you can start dating. For three months the cost is 500 euros. A six-month membership costs 750 euros. And for 1,200 euros, you can use the service for a year.
A signed contract guarantees that the agency will provide subscribers with an unlimited number of contacts for potential partners (with a minimum of four per trimester) and will select the most compatible profiles from affiliated agencies. To broaden the scope of business, these agencies network and exchange contacts.
But watch out: they guarantee a minimum number of contacts without specifying that all they provide are phone numbers. There's no assurance, in other words, that you'll ever have a date, that any of the contacts will actually want to meet you. That'd be a shame, of course. But it's not the agency's problem. For them, the deal's already done.
See more from Culture / Society here