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At you've always got a friend

Jacquelynn Johnson doesn't really need more friends.

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Between her kickball teammates, work buddies and former classmates, she has a wide circle of people to go with to parties, concerts and bars. Plus, she's got a boyfriend.

But, as a wedding and event planner starting her own business, Johnson is always looking for ways to network and make some extra cash.

When she came across, a website for hiring people for platonic services, she figured she'd give it a try. She knew a lot of people who moved here from other states and didn't know a soul or what to do. Maybe she could get paid to show them around?

"At first I was a little standoffish about it,'' said Johnson, 25. "I told myself that if I start getting freaky people, I would delete it.''

Fortunately, that hasn't been necessary. Since posting her profile over the summer, she's been hired three times, each for business-related jobs. Twice, she worked booths at trade shows, modeling jewelry at one and greeting customers at the other. Another time, she represented an out-of-state catering company at a national caterers' meeting at the Don CeSar Beach Hotel, handing out business cards and networking.

It was quick, easy money, she said. She earned $20 to $25 an hour, no strings attached.

"I've never gotten any weird responses, and I'm kind of surprised about that,'' she said. "I just wish more people knew about it.''

Launched in September 2009, RentAFriend caters to people who are new to a city or business travelers seeking a dinner partner or someone to show them the hot spots. Sortable by ZIP code, it also works for people trying a new hobby or needing a workout partner to stay motivated.

Other circumstances are more unique. Like the college student who got into trouble for drinking and rented "parents'' to meet with school administrators. Or the parent of an adult child with Asperger syndrome who hired a friend to expose him to social situations, like going to the grocery store.

Scott Rosenbaum started the site to help people find friendship and nonsexual companionship. Sites like Ashley Madison, which offers discreet dating for people wanting an affair, kept pushing dating closer to sex, he said. He wanted to take it a step backward.

"Ninety percent of people who sign into the website are happy,'' said Rosenbaum, 30, of New Jersey. "They aren't lonely.''

If it sounds like an escort service, Rosenbaum insists that it's not. He has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual solicitations and personally reviews every profile and photo before they appear on the site.

"There's no hanky panky whatsoever,'' he said. "I kick out anything that I think might be a problem.''

Users pay a monthly or annual fee to access the profiles of people wanting to be a friend. The two parties decide what they want to do and negotiate the price in advance, typically $10 to $50 an hour, although friends often waive the fee if the activity is particularly special or expensive.

The site has about 283,000 friends available for hire worldwide and about 2,600 paying members. Friends pay nothing to post their profile on the site; friend seekers pay $24.95 a month or $69.95 a year get the phone numbers and e-mail addresses of possible pals.

Rosenbaum doesn't charge the friends for hire because he wants people to have a variety of choices, even if that means the majority of friends never get hired. "I don't want anyone to have to settle on a friend.''

Christopher Reese, 28, signed up for the site a few months ago but hasn't been hired. He's lived in Tampa for eight years and liked idea of showing around someone new to the city.

"I would totally be willing to hang out and get paid,'' said Reese, who works for a bank helping people avoid foreclosure. He set his price at $50 an hour because, "I'd want to make money at it if I were doing it.''

Besides, he already has friends.

Kathy Smith, 53, added this incentive to her profile: Because she works for an entertainment agency, she often gets free tickets to local concerts. She also loves playing Texas Hold 'Em and going out for seafood and beer.

RentAFriend has had the most success in Las Vegas and other big cities heavy with tourists, conventioneers and business people. The most popular friends suggest creative things to do, said Rosenbaum, like one Vegas woman who has taken businessmen to the Pinball Hall of Fame and a shooting range.

Bobbie Kingsbury, a 40-year-old fashion designer from Tampa, posted a profile because she knows the area well and could make good recommendations, especially to out-of-towners. She's available to pal around with guys and girls but wants nothing to do with romance.

"If they want to go kayaking, I'd do it. If they want to go to Bern's. Sure, I'll get dressed up,'' she said. ''If someone needs a best friend in Tampa, I'm there.''

At you've always got a friend 11/04/10 [Last modified: Friday, November 5, 2010 11:50am]
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