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When Prince Charming Has a Restraining Order

THE NATION

State lawmakers and websites debate requiring matchmaking services to conduct background checks on their clients.

September 03, 2006|Bonnie Miller Rubin | Chicago Tribune

More than a decade after the Internet became a dating hot spot, the debate over reality and fantasy persists, with lawmakers and websites clashing over legislative proposals to prevent clients from being scammed.

"You guys can either be part of the solution or feel like you're victims of someone taking over your business," Florida state Rep. Kevin Ambler told industry insiders at a San Francisco conference last month. "But this is going to come ... like a freight train roaring down the track."

New York has already passed a consumer statute to regulate dating sites. A half-dozen other states are considering similar laws to require matchmaking services to conduct criminal background checks, or at least post a notice to alert clients that they are on their own.

One new company has taken the process further by offering to vet all of a user's personal information, including credit history and the presence of sexually transmitted diseases.

Providers insist they can police themselves. Some safeguards are already in place to weed out rogues -- such as having other users report bad apples. Besides, they say, more oversight will only make sites cost-prohibitive, limiting volume and choice.

An estimated 16 million Americans spent more than $245 million in 2005 looking for love on the Internet, according to the Pew Research Center and Online Publishers Assn., respectively. But traffic is slowing, which some analysts attribute to an erosion of credibility -- not just of potential suitors but the companies as well.

Moreover, efforts to guarantee truthfulness would be no more successful in cyber-dating than at a bar, opponents of regulation say.

Seduction has always been about selling, they argue -- and selling is about embellishment. So what if someone shaves a few years off their age, or adds a couple zeroes to their salary? That's all part of the game. Any move to neatly apply consumer protections to courtship in the same way as, say, to the purchase of a flat-screen TV is futile.

"People are the same online and off," said Evan Marc Katz, a founder of a consulting firm that helps prospective suitors write persuasive profiles -- for $1,000 and up. "If they choose to misrepresent themselves, there really isn't much you can do."

Eric Straus of Cupid.com puts it more succinctly: "Government is sticking its nose where it doesn't belong."

Still, during the last year, Yahoo Personals and Match.com were both sued for posting phony profiles and using "date bait" -- sending employees to act as members -- to keep subscribers from bolting.

A Yahoo Personals spokeswoman said, "We do not comment on pending legal matters."

A representative for Match.com said: "There is not a single thread of truth to the allegations in this lawsuit."

To help restore credibility, Herb Vest, 61, owner of True.com, has thrown down the gauntlet.

Three years ago, the Dallas financier promised to offer background checks on clients and sue anyone who lied about felony convictions or marital status. (When True.com filed suit against a California sex offender who got on the site this year, it made national news.)

Now, Vest is challenging competitors to do the same: Disclose you do background checks, or clearly state that you don't.

Although no background check can be foolproof, they can go a long way toward deterring scammers, supporters say. Something as simple as utility records can determine whether someone else is residing at the same address.

To Vest, those who lie online about a police record or marital status -- estimated by experts at between 5% and 30% -- are in a different category than those who shade the truth about height, weight or hairline.

"If you meet someone who is 20 pounds heavier, then you've probably lost 30 minutes at a coffeeshop," Vest said. "That's a whole lot different than getting involved emotionally or getting raped or murdered."

But some of Vest's competitors, such as Cupid's Straus, dismiss his challenge as nothing more than a public relations stunt.

In San Francisco, conference organizer Marc Lesnick questioned whether clients will want to give their Social Security numbers and driver's license data to every social networking site they visit -- data necessary for background checks.

"Worse than the malicious consumer is the malicious company," Lesnick said.

Some say that the dangers are exaggerated and that the response is an overreaction.

After a presentation about the possibility that would-be rapists might look for potential victims online, Michael Jones, a partner in a software company, said that speakers "talked about the female population as if women were mindless bats dragged into situations.... Everybody lives in the real world."

Nevertheless, Florida rape crisis centers have started asking victims if they met their attacker online. Within the first 10 days at just one Tampa Bay crisis center, a half-dozen Net-dating victims had already been identified, according to Ambler, the Republican Florida legislator.

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