Have you ever gotten a cute message on a dating app such as Match.com or Tinder, responded, had a fun and flirty conversation, and then given the other person your number or even arranged a date with him (or her)? Then you found that your new acquaintance seemed like a completely different person when you met or talked on the phone?

Maybe he (or she) really was. The person you talked to online might actually have been a professional "dating assistant," armed with jokes and invitations proven to work on the opposite sex. That's thanks to a company called Vida Select whose website promises: "You No Longer Have To Fight An Uphill Battle In Order To Date High-Quality Women!" Instead, Vida Select helps out its customers by 1) Writing a profile that women (or men) just can't resist; 2) Sending introductory messages to hundreds or thousands of prospects who meet your specifications, flirting with them online while pretending to be you, and obtaining as many of their phone numbers as possible; and 3) For premium clients, actually setting up dates so all you have to do is show up.

How can you tell if you're chatting online with a real person or a dating assistant? There's no way to know for sure. Some Vida Select clients who go on to have serious relationships never tell their girlfriends or boyfriends or spouses how they actually met.

Vida Select is the brainchild of entrepreneur Scott Valdez who says he got the idea after hiring a writer to do his online flirting for him while he was working 60 or 70 hours a week at a startup. The approach had really good results, he says. "I told a few friends how well it was working and they all started to ask if they could get my guy working for them," he said in a 2014 interview with Vice. "That's when I realized there are plenty of successful busy guys outs there who would prefer to focus on their careers and delegate this part of their life." Back then, his company was called VirtualDatingAssistants.com and he said it had roughly 100 clients. 

Five years later, Vida Select says it has helped "7,686 men just like you." Multiply that by the hundreds or thousands of women its dating assistants have reached out to on behalf of each of its male clients, and it seems likely that millions of women may have received flirty messages purportedly from men who wanted to date them that actually came from imposters instead.

If you hire writers to do something as odd and interesting as pretending to be someone else while chatting up strangers online, sooner or later one of them will write about the experience. Last year, a writer named Chloe Rose Stuart-Ulin did just that in a Quartz piece that's gone viral recently. In it, she describes the pickup lines she used on dating services, tailored to the interests women had listed in their profiles. For example, this one for dog-lovers: 

"Hey. As an animal lover, I want to find out your opinion... dressing up your dog: yes or no?"

Or this one, which Stuart-Ulin calls one of her favorites: 

"A beautiful seaplane. A suitcase full of cash. And a dashing co-pilot. Whereto?"

The effectiveness of these lines is backed up by data because Valdez has tested a large number of openers on a large number of women and kept a spreadsheet to track the results, he explains in the training manual Stuart-Ulin received. (Although Vida Select serves both men and women, the majority of its clients are men.)

Within Vida Select, different types of dating assistants have different roles. Stuart-Ulin's job as a "closer" was to get the target's phone number as quickly as possible--she received a $1.75 bonus for every number she got. The only problem was that sometimes the client would received a target's phone number but not call. The target, usually a woman, would be understandably confused by the radio silence and would often send one or more follow-up messages asking what happened. But since she'd already shared her phone number, there was no more money to be made from that target and so closers like Stuart-Ulin were barred from making further conversation. In other words, they wound up ghosting the women they'd been chatting with. "I am creating these bitter women out there. I ask myself if I'm part of the problem," one of the other closers remarked.

Why would a client who received the phone number of a woman who checked his boxes not call her? Possibly because he had lots of phone numbers to choose from. Vida Select uses a large-scale approach, reaching out to as many eligible women as possible and gathering as many phone numbers as it can. "Online dating is a numbers game," Valdez wrote in the training manual. The Vida website explains the concept more fully:

"Beautiful women are bombarded with likes, swipes, messages, and date requests from hundreds of guys just like you every single day. Now how many men do you think these women are actually meeting? Our data says 1.3 per week, on average."  

To succeed against these odds, the site says:  

"You'll need to swipe through thousands of profiles, craft hundreds of messages, and consistently say all the right things to keep the conversational spark alive...until you finally convince her to meet you.

All of this takes a ridiculous amount of time, effort, and skill to pull off. When you think about it like that, meeting quality women sounds like taking on an exhausting new part-time job! (And it basically is!)"

You may have noticed, or at least I did, that a beautiful woman is synonymous with a quality one; apparently Vida has never heard the term "hot mess." But even worse is the cynicism behind an approach that's all about scoring the most phone numbers and the most dates (and perhaps the most bedpost notches). It's emblematic of the "brogrammer" culture so on display today in every large city with a healthy tech sector.

"The way I see it is our service does way more good than it does bad," Valdez told Inc.com. "I don't know of one life we've ruined and I know we have made a very positive impact on thousands of clients' lives over the years." I'm sure that's true. I also think that saying his company hasn't ruined anyone's life that he knows of may be setting the bar too low. 

Online dating might be a numbers game to Valdez and his ilk, but it isn't a numbers game to many of the hapless women who've fallen into Vida Select's trap. They gave their phone numbers to sweet-talking dating assistants who used lines calculated to arouse their interest. And then these women either met someone completely different from who they expected. Or maybe no one at all. 

This piece has been updated with comments from Vida Select founder Scott Valdez.