Top international dating sites

The mail-order bride boom

FORTUNE — Anastasia doesn’t seem particularly concerned that I’m not interested in marrying her. The 23-year-old Ukrainian is gamely answering questions in our private Internet chat room, which is costing me about a buck a minute. In fact, she seems to like me. She’s sending me emoticons and even wants to know what I would title a book that was based on my life. (Not really sure, I tell her.)

I’m on AnastasiaDate.com, the leading provider of “premium international dating” services for singles looking for love abroad. (Her name being the same as the site’s is a coincidence.) Premium international dating is a new name for what’s traditionally referred to as the mail-order bride business. And thanks to people like me willing to pay to talk with beautiful young women like Anastasia — who was paid to respond — the trade is doing pretty well.

Revenue numbers for the mail-order bride industry are hard to come by. But AnastasiaDate shared its sales and growth statistics exclusively with Fortune. The company made $110 million in 2012. In 2013, it projects it will make $140 million. Its user growth is even more impressive: The site’s traffic grew 220% in 2012. It now has four million users, who cumulatively spend some 360 million hours on the site per year. It racked up 2.6 million visits in March alone.

AnastasiaDate is not alone. The advent of globalization and the ubiquity of online dating has set the stage for new-age mail-order bride companies to gain unprecedented popularity. According to market research firm Experian Marketing Services, the top 10 premium international dating sites drew 12.2 million visits in March. That’s a 29% uptick from March of last year — a huge increase compared to the rest of the relatively stagnant online dating industry. In March, AnastasiaDate was the 29th most popular online dating service period, in a category of 1, 400 sites. And the company believes there’s room for expansion. “I think there’s a lot of pent-up demand, ” says Chief Strategy Officer Mark Brooks. “People are realizing that there’s a bigger world than Match.com.”

Our Anastasia.

To achieve the kind of growth Brooks is hoping for, though, the company will have to overcome the deep stigma surrounding the mail-order bride industry. The practice conjures images of women desperate to marry out of failing economies; and of unappealing American men looking for a traditional (read: submissive) mate to keep the house clean. Not surprisingly, the growing industry is attempting to shine up its reputation. Brooks sees international dating today as being on the cusp of respectability — in much the same way online dating was in its early stages, before people accepted it as just another way to meet someone. Eventually, he foresees American women using the site and predicts that the economic disparities will fade away, but that may be a long way off. For now, AnastasiaDate is making a big push to go mainstream with its current model, as mainstream as courting younger foreign women from underperforming economies can really get, that is.

Early this year, the Moscow-based company hired Brooks, who is a prominent online dating industry consultant, to head up its growth strategy. It has also expanded its U.S. presence, hiring more Americans and opening a New York office. It brought on a Manhattan-based PR firm and says it will spend more than $45 million on marketing this year. Recently, it ran ads on CNBC, Discovery, Golf, the History Channel, and CNN. Says Brooks, “We are very, very sensitive to reputation now.”

The company is also trying to clean up its act. For example, the online interaction I had with Anastasia, where she got a small kickback for minutes chatting with me, is against company policy. “It is outright forbidden, ” Brooks says. “Abuse still happens, and we’re raising our game to stamp it out.” The company is planning a crackdown on its local partner agencies who pay women to interact on the site.

Brooks chalks up problems so far to the growing pains of globalization. The site simply scaled too fast to meet strict standards of quality control. But he says those wrinkles will be smoothed out as dating overseas becomes more widely acceptable. “If you consider where we’re going as a global society there’s no question that this is the direction we’re heading, ” Brooks says. “Socially, we’re becoming more international. This is a good thing.”

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