Online dating sites debate background checks

By David Crary

NEW YORK – As Valentine’s Day approaches, all is not lovey-dovey in the high-stakes online dating industry.

The contentious issue of the moment – pitting one of the three biggest companies, True.com, against its major rivals – is whether online dating services can enhance their clients’ safety by conducting criminal background screenings of would-be daters.

Last month, New Jersey became the first state to enact a law requiring the sites to disclose whether they perform background checks. True.com – the only large online dating service that already does such screenings – was elated by its successful lobbying and hopes other states will follow suit.

“The online dating industry tends to get a real bad rap, because of criminal activity,” said True.com’s founder and chief executive, Herb Vest. “If we were to clean up, there’s hordes of off-line singles who’d come online to find their soul mate.”

The pitch appeals to women like Jayne Hitchcock of York, Maine, who was victimized by online harassment and cyberstalking in the late ’90s after someone assumed her identity and sent sexually explicit messages. When Hitchcock later decided to try online dating, she turned to True.com.

“There are people out there looking for a site where they’d feel a little bit safer,” said Hitchcock, who recently met her fiance on True.com.

However, Vest’s many critics in the industry contend that True.com’s screening method is incomplete and too easily thwarted, potentially creating a false sense of security.

The New Jersey law, similar to ones considered in other states, will require online dating services to notify their customers whether criminal background screenings have been conducted.

If a dating service doesn’t perform such screenings, it must acknowledge that in large capital letters in every electronic communication with members from New Jersey.

Services that do conduct screenings must disclose that fact and say whether they allow people with criminal convictions to use the site. Those services must note that background checks are not foolproof.

Critics say the type of screening envisioned by the law – checking for a name in databases of criminal convictions – has inherent flaws: users could give fake names, and many dangerous people may not be in the databases.

More broadly, some worry that New Jersey’s action will push other states to regulate the online dating industry, creating a hodgepodge of laws that will drive up costs and force some companies out of business. Some say they’d prefer federal legislation addressing background checks, rather than a patchwork of state laws.