Katherine Flansburg met her boyfriend through PlentyOfFish.com, a free online dating site. Several months later, they moved in together. Everything seemed to be going well until one morning when they were woken up by a loud banging on the door.
Flansburg, 26, a real estate agent in Santa Clarita, Calif., was shocked to discover that their unexpected guest was her boyfriend's wife. Moments later, a fuming Flansburg rummaged through her boyfriend's desk drawers and found recently filed paperwork for a legal marriage separation, as well as an IRS earnings statement that showed her boyfriend's salary was only one-quarter as much money as he'd told her.
"He was a piece of work," she recalled.
As long as people have been dating, there have been tales of liars, cheats and thieves. In the Internet age, with the anonymity offered by e-mail, and with people blogging about their bad experiences, it seems like there are more examples of nefarious behavior than ever.
In the pre-Internet days, if a woman wanted to find out about her beau's background, or if a man wanted to make sure his new girlfriend wasn't a gold digger, they would have to hire a private investigator, an expensive and time-consuming process. But 21st century daters have new tools that give them easy, inexpensive access to outlets through which they can run background checks on potential mates by tapping into databases and computerized records.
Digging for the Truth
Flansburg was just one of 16 million Americans who have logged on for love, according to a 2006 survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. If she had run a background check on her boyfriend before they moved in together and gotten serious, Flansburg may have found out that he was still married or that he'd lied about his earnings. More and more online daters are doing background checks, and some are discovering lies about their mate's age, education, employment and ownership.
The Los Angeles-based Corra Group, for example, used to specialize in employment background checks. But recently it launched a separate Web site for dating-related searches.
By signing up online for as little as $39, along with the name and birth date of a significant other, you can get information about a person's address history, property ownership, as well as any bankruptcy claims, civil judgments or aliases. For $20 more, the search includes criminal records, and an $89 fee gets you a nationwide federal crime search.
Co-founder Gordon Basichis, 59, has 20 years of investigatiive experience and says that requests for background checks are on the rise, especially around Valentine's Day. While about 75 percent of his clientele is female -- largely professionals in their mid-30s to 50s -- the Corra Group also receives nearly 25 percent of its dating-related inquiries from men. "If they met someone online, they just want to know -- 'who is this person?'" Basichis says. "People want to know if someone's full of it."
Many of his calls come from single moms who want to find out if their suitor has a sexual predator history. Other times, it's as basic as verifying a person's profession. And the information rolls in quickly. The company typically turns around a background check in one day.
Pigs, Not Seals
Skipp Porteous, 62, founder of Sherlock Investigations Inc. in New York, is also seeing an increase in online dating inquiries. Background checks for daters are "snowballing," he says, because "you don't know who you're really talking to."
Porteous, who started his investigative career in Los Angeles during the 1960s, will do anything from surveillance to simple background checks. Relationship investigations now make up 20 percent of his work, and he says that at least half the time, his research uncovers people who have told lies about themselves. That number is so high because most of his clients already have an intuition that something doesn't sound right about their sweeties.
"They're suspicious to start with, and we find that their suspicions are usually correct," he says. Porteous frequently digs up lies that involve age, marital status, earnings and education. But some go even beyond that. "Guys love to say they're ex-Navy Seals," he says.
Currently, popular dating sites such as Match.com or JDate.com provide online safety tips but don't mandate background checks to post a profile. Match.com tells users: "Because privacy is of the highest importance at Match.com, we don't require background checks." But some dating services -- including True.com and The Badge.org -- do.
In 2003, Herb Vest, 62, founded the Dallas-based True.com, a site that encourages "safer dating" by requiring background checks on everyone. Anyone who has been convicted of a felony or sexual offense is banned from the site. "If they do come on, and we catch them, at that point we turn them into their parole board and the feds," he says.
Vest ran a finance company for nearly 20 years before deciding to start True.com. After tying the knot in 2003, he decided to launch a dating site with his wife. "We both decided that we had something remarkable and wanted other people to experience the same thing," Vest said. After learning that an estimated 30 percent of online daters were married, according to a 2002 Marketdata study, Vest decided to enforce marital checks on anyone wanting to access True.com.
But it's not always easy to screen out people who are married. "Our program uses about nine billion hits of different databases," he says, referring to the complex computerized system used to identify if a potential user has a spouse. "We're serious about this." So serious that he's encouraging all dating sites to follow suit. Vest is trying to help pass legislation that would require online dating services to either conduct criminal background checks, or prominently disclose on their Web sites that they don't.
But Basichis says that if a dating site starts requiring background checks, it can send out mixed messages. "On one hand, the site is promising you the hero or heroine of you dreams, while on other hand, they're saying, 'let's check on them first.'"
So what's a single girl or guy to do? Liz Kelly, a 41-year-old Los Angeles dating coach and author of "Smart Man Hunting," recommends that online daters first go the Google and MySpace route. People will portray their real selves on a site like MySpace, but exaggerate certain things on their dating profile.
Kelly knows this all too well. Before her current relationship, she had been on 200 dates in just four years. Many of her online matches lied about their personal traits -- and about 90 percent of them lied about their height.
A Screening Method
So, how do you get the truth before it's too late? "You're meeting a virtual stranger, so you have take precaution," said Kelly, who has developed her own online strategy for some of the love-seekers she coaches. Her suggestion: Share two e-mail exchanges, one 15-minute phone call and a one-hour coffee date.
"I recommend that you don't do a background check right away," she advises. "You want to leave some room for romance." Then, she says, if there's chemistry, people can run a background check if they think something sounds off.
Sometimes these searches, however, come up flat.
Despite her past experience, Flansburg, for example, isn't completely sold on them. "I've seen background checks. They're not clear," she says, referring to the lack of information some of the searches turn up.
Flansburg's unpleasant discovery about her ex-boyfriend hasn't deterred her from scouring the Internet for love. "I've met some nice people since then." However, she only uses paid services now. She thinks that more married people log on to free online dating sites because nothing will show up on their credit cards statements.
These days, Flansburg is much more inquisitive and aware, admitting that she has even considered looking through a guy's glove compartment or at his cell phone's "recent call" list. "You have to do your own research," she says.
Basichis agrees, and urges online daters to look for red flags. "Everybody's bigger than life -- until you meet them," he says.
Safety tips for Internet dating (according to dating coach Liz Kelly):
Never give out a home phone number.
Use an anonymous e-mail (don't use your entire name as your e-mail alias).
Always meet in a public place and in a neighborhood you know.
Women, in particular, should always get the man's number first and use caller ID to block (*67) for the first call.
Don't share home addresses. Always give a general area instead.
Dating Red Flags (according to Corra Group's Gordon Basichis):
Listen closely for inconsistencies in stories involving ownership, family background and living situations.
If he or she asks you to cash a check.
Watch the way the person behaves around your kids.
If the person is telling you about him or herself and can't account for a long stint of time.
If he or she doesn't have any friends or never introduces you to his friends.
If the person says he or she owns property, or a boat, for instance, and you never see it.