July 1, 2010 -- Everyone may deserve a chance at love, but do potential paramours have the right to know if the people they meet on Internet dating sites have a criminal past?
Earlier this month, a San Antonio man, who is also a convicted murderer, was searching for singles on the online dating site Match.com until a local paper revealed his past.
According to the San Antonio Express-News, because the Dallas-based website doesn't conduct background checks on members, Abraham Fortune's history remained under the radar until the paper picked up the news after reporting an unrelated story on Fortune. .
Once alerted to Fortune's record, Match.com removed his profile from the site. But the incident has prompted some in the blogosphere and beyond to wonder: should background checks be mandatory for members of online dating sites?
Match.com declined to comment specifically on the Fortune case. But Match.com General Manager Mandy Ginsberg said that though the company takes its members' security very seriously, it chooses not to conduct background checks because of inaccuracies and incomplete information in the felony and sex offender databases.
"If we provide background checks, can they be accurate? And if they're not, do we give a false sense of security to people on the site?" she said. "That's the big concern I have. If someone slips through the cracks… does that create more of a risk for people to not be more prudent?"
She said that regardless of where singles meet -- be it in a bar, at a nightclub or at the grocery store -- they should be cautious as they get to know strangers.
On Match.com, which welcomes more than 20,000 singles a day in the U.S., she said people should behave no differently.
"People should exercise caution," she said. "You always have to be smart."
But other people familiar with the world of Internet dating argue that, especially on sites that charge for the service, background checks should be part of the package.
"They're making a lot of money, they're charging a lot of money. I think doing a background check… should be integrated in almost every major dating site," said Stephany Alexander, founder of the free date screening site WomanSavers.com and author of the book "Sex, Lies and the Internet."
While it's true that singles can encounter sex offenders and convicted felons anywhere and not know it, Alexander said the difference in an online environment is that people can conceal their histories behind a computer screen.
With glamour shots and embellished personal descriptions, "it's easier to hide behind a fake profile," she said.
Dating Expert: It's Easy to Hide Behind a Profile
Julie Spira, cyber-dating expert and author of "The Perils of Cyber-Dating: Confessions of a Hopeful Romantic Looking for Love Online," said that it would be helpful for sites to at least give users the option to do a background check on other members.
Just as some sites let users pay for extra online services, she suggested that sites let users run background checks on those they encounter online, on a person-by-person basis.
"I belive that the site would be doing a better service for their members if they offered the opportunity for someone to do a background search," she said.
But while most online dating sites leave it up to individual members to suss out the suspicious strangers they meet on the Internet, executives behind one dating website say it's their business to keep their members as safe as possible.
Ruben Buell, president of True.com, said that since the company launched in 2003, it has conducted background checks on every person that signs up for the site.
"We wanted to change the way dating sites were perceived and the way people used them so that when someone came online they had a much better understanding that the person they were talking to was not a convicted felon," he said.
True.com: Background Checks Are Better Than Nothing at All
Buell said True.com screens out convicted felons, including sex offenders, in every state. True also makes members confirm their marital status. If the site discovers that a married person has attempted to join, the company says it will turn them in for wire fraud.
Buell said the dating service welcomes thousands of people to the site a day, but rejects about 2-3 percent. He said that's in line with national statistics that indicate that about 2 percent of the population are convicted felons.
While competitors may argue that True's imperfect service gives clients a false sense of security, Buell said the screening process is better than nothing at all.
"No system in the world is bullet-proof," he said. "Nothing is perfect but these databases do cover 95 percent of the population of the U.S."
Choosing not to do background checks because they're not totally foolproof, he said, is like a police department deciding not to pursue murderers because they won't be able to catch everyone.
True's screening process doesn't catch everyone, but it catches the majority, Buell said. The company's website also discloses to members that the background checks are not a perfect safety solution and that they should still be careful.
Users of Dating Sites View Background Checks With Caution
Mark Brooks, a consultant to online dating sites and editor of Online Personals Watch, said the issue of background checks has been a controversial one for the industry for years.
A few years ago, several states considered legislation on the issue, he said, but thus far only New Jersey has an Internet dating safety law. It requires that sites provide users with safety notices and inform users if they don't conduct background checks on members.
As Internet dating sites increasingly compete with social networking sites, he said they do face more pressure to provide the security of a site like Facebook, which lets users see the company potential dates keep.
But Brooks said unless dating services use them as a marketing point, like True.com, they are mostly wary of offering background checks on their sites.
"One the one hand, I think that it's a key differentiator for the dating industry to offer these kinds of checks, in theory. But in practice, users view these kinds of checks with great concern," he said.
Even the mention of background checks, he said, could make users skeptical about the kind of people they might meet on a dating site.
Online Dating Sites Already Offer Layers of Protection
He also said that the lag time in updating sex offender and felony databases doesn't make the manpower and financial expense of background checks worth it to most dating sites.
But he added that the millions of people who made the online dating industry a $1.2 billion business in 2009 shouldn't worry. Not only do sites monitor and remove users for various kinds of abuse, including spamming, scamming and obscene online behavior, the medium itself provides a level of security.
On sites that charge a subscription, people with malicious intentions can be traced through their credit cards. And some sites offer users ways to communicate with other members through double-blind e-mail and phone call systems that mask real contact information until they're ready to reveal it.
And Brooks noted that online or off, troubling though it may be to accept, people with shady pasts may be looking for love too.
"Statistically speaking, you have to bear in mind that just as you'd meet someone on the street, you can also meet people who aren't favorable on a dating site," Brooks said. "Anyone who goes on a dating site who is wanted as a murderer is pretty dumb. It's pretty unlikely to happen."