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Online dating companies quarrel over background checks

February 15, 2008|From the Associated Press

NEW YORK -- 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 such as Jayne Hitchcock of York, Maine, who was victimized by three years of 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 say he is acting mostly out of self-interest. They contend that True.com's screening method -- running names through state databases of criminal records -- is incomplete and too easily thwarted, potentially creating a false sense of security for customers.

"It's so superficial that it's worthless," said Braden Cox, policy counsel with NetChoice, a coalition of e-commerce companies that includes Yahoo, AOL and other major players in online dating.

Match.com, one of the largest dating services, said it had been assessing online background checks for six years and concluded they offered no extra protection.

"Match.com is disappointed New Jersey has enacted a flawed and unconstitutional law and we will explore opportunities to challenge it," a company statement said.

Even sponsors of the New Jersey bill conceded it was imperfect, but suggested it would at least make online daters more aware of security concerns.

In addition to questions about how the checks are conducted, some critics 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 operating costs and force some companies out of business. Some in the industry say they'd prefer federal legislation addressing background checks.

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