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Inside The Online Dating Industry
by Joe Tracy, publisher of Online Dating Magazine

Online Dating Background Checks Controversy


The most controversial subject in the online dating industry right now is background check legislation. The reason is because several states are trying to force online dating services to do criminal background checks or list prominently on the site that they don't.

This week it was announced that a House committee in the state of Illinois had passed a measure requiring background checks for online dating services or force them to post the following message:

“No background check of felony or sex offense convictions is done on members who use this service. Please take appropriate safety measures to increase awareness of possible risks associated with dating.”

The full house is expected to soon vote on the measure, possibly as early as next week.

At first glance, it may seem like a good idea; weed out criminals in order to make online dating a safer experience for everyone. But when you begin to dig deeper, the controversy starts to unfold. But before we begin this analysis, it is vital to remember that this is an opinion column and thus I present this information as such. Online Dating Magazine welcomes reader opinions whether you agree or disagree. Hearing differing points of view are important to gaining insight into an issue.

The History of the Online Dating Background Check Controversy

The controversy began with online dating service True. A few years back, True signed an exclusive contract with the largest provider of online background checks. Then they started contacting various states trying to get legislatures interested in forcing other dating services to do background checks. No doubt, doing so would be great advertisement for True, who didn't really seem interested in spreading good will; otherwise why would they sign an exclusive contract with the largest background check provider?

But unfortunately, some legislatures not educated in True's tactics bought into the idea and soon some states, like Florida and Illinois, started drafting bills that would beckon to True's call.

True has tried to position itself as the "saint" in this controversy; the site that "looks out for online daters". If this is true, then why does True widely distribute sleazy advertisements that make them look more like an escort service than a relationship service? And why do they make it so hard for members to unsubscribe from their service?

The answer to these questions are contained in a book. It's a very interesting book that all legislatures and competitors should read. The book is called "Instructions to my Officers" (see review here) and it is written by none other than the CEO of True, Herb Vest. I have it. But more importantly, I've read it. And I've discovered some excerpts that may answer these daunting questions:

"Accomplish your objectives before the competition can react. If you plan the exploitation phase carefully and direct your focus to the competition's most vulnerable point, you will quickly dominate the small market." (page 61)

"Use regulatory restraints to your advantage." (page 62)

"Employ lobbyists to protect your regulatory flank." (page 63)

"Tie up suppliers with exclusivity contracts." (page 63)

"The reporter is the revolutionary's best friend. Dramatic and controversial events sell newspapers... little guys who do dramatic and controversial things quickly gain media attention." (page 74)

"You reach them [the public] by continual, consistent statements and actions that reinforce the perception that you are a force to be reckoned with." (page 84)

A lot of these statements are mild compared to others published in the book. But most important, it gives you insight into what True is doing. It helps you recognize that their intentions may not be pure after all. It's all laid out in print and straight from the CEO's mouth.

Every single online dating industry executive should be required to read this book (and Online Dating Magazine will be posting a review of it this month). A great leader protects their strategy plan. Yet, Herb Vest has laid his out in print. Thus, it's vital that other industry execs get a look inside of his mind in order to help formulate an approach to True's tactics (like online dating background check legislation) that True pushes. Legislatures should read this book to understand the apparent real reason True has pushed for background checks. When you understand the motives, then it's easier to avoid being a pawn in pushing one company's agenda.

Herb Vest is not dumb. In fact, he's brilliant in many aspects. He's been able to help True become a much bigger name than the company itself. He has successfully executed strategies outlined in his book to gain company recognition. His attempt to launch an offensive that keeps other dating services on the defense has been virtually flawless through these online dating background check initiative pushes. You must applaud his tenacity, even if flawed. I do. In fact, Mr. Vest is a person that one might enjoy having lunch with, just listening to him talk business even if you don't agree with his ideas or concepts. That's why it's important to read his book.

Now that we see clearer motives behind these background checks, let's take a look at the effects of such.

The Effect on Niche and Free Services
Forcing online dating services to do background checks will have huge repercussions for niche sites and free online dating sites. If the Illinois background check measure (or bills in other states) passes, some of these sites may be forced to close or drive away users who think they are "unsafe" because of the required message online dating services must post. Do we really only want the "big players" to exist?

And what happens in this scenario:

Four different states pass online dating background check laws, each requiring a site to do background checks or to post a specified message on its home page. And each state's message is different. Suddenly, the front page of an online dating service will no longer look like a dating service, but rather a government information site. Free services would be forced to charge users. It's not a pretty scenario.

And are you ready to pay higher fees for online dating? Virtually every online dating service would have to raise its fees in order to cover the costs behind background checks on every member.

Why the Industry is Against Background Checks

Outside of True, most of the industry has banded together to oppose online dating background checks. Even sites like Google have expressed opposition. When Florida was heavily addressing the issue of background checks awhile ago, 30 firms signed a letter opposing it. Within the letter, the following good point was made:

"the legislation has the potential to create a false sense of security for users of such services because current methods of background checks are not comprehensive and identifying data can be easily falsified. Even the disclosures that attempt to address this concern simply exacerbate the problem."

The problem is that not all states are alike when it comes to allowing other companies to do criminal background checks. Several states don't allow background check companies to obtain certain vital information. Thus criminals in these states can and do make it past these checks. So a user may feel a sense of security that their date is OK because a supposed "background check" was done on him/her. This creates that false sense of security. And when you let down your guard, you make yourself more vulnerable.

According to a USA Today article on 12/12/05 titled "Background Checks Split Dating Sites":

"Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and South Dakota are not covered by's searches. In other states, checks are limited. In Arizona, the database doesn't have access to court records in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix."

Some lawmakers may think that background checks are an "all inclusive solution" to criminals using online dating services. What they don't realize, however, is that the checks are not as comprehensive as they should be in order to really protect users. Perhaps that needs to be addressed first.

Another reason the industry is against background checks is because it will force them to raise their prices. Aren't the prices high enough already? And is crime really rampant on these online dating services?

If legislatures want to dabble in the online dating industry, perhaps it would be better to pressure online dating services to educate readers on enjoying a more safe experience. But most services already do this.

Why Only Online Background Checks?
It's interesting to note that legislation efforts for background checks focus on online dating services. Why? If the goal is to "protect" daters then perhaps they should require bars to do background checks before a person can enter. Perhaps grocery store clerks should have to do portable background checks on patrons who talk to each other. Maybe legislatures should require speed dating services to run background checks on everyone who shows up to an event. In fact, all singles events should require background checks on everyone entering the door!

Yes, these examples are absurd, but so is the selective efforts to force online dating services to do background checks or post a message that makes them appear to be a service for criminals.

It may surprise you, but I'm actually not opposed to online dating background checks. What I am opposed to is the real motives behind the current push for the checks and the lack of consistency in the type of checks you get from state to state. This issue must be resolved first.

If legislatures feel they have to push some sort of law, then require online dating services to prominently post educational material on creating a safe online dating experience. Heck, online dating services could even provide the option of one member to do a background check on another member for an additional fee.

But really, is all this necessary?

In this case perhaps it's better to educate rather than legislate.

Tip of the Week
Last week in my first tip to building a strong user base, I talked about the vital importance of offering a free lifetime membership. Even with a free lifetime membership, some people may be skeptical to sign up if your service is "new". Therefore, you may want to consider offering an additional incentive. That brings us to this week's tip:

Tip #2: Use an Incentive

Incentives are a good idea to help build a user database, whether it be for a newsletter or online dating service. When a person browses an online dating service, they must be sold to sign up for it. You must provide them with good reasons to sign up that connect with them. Write an ebook on a subject of online dating that would be of interest to online daters then offer that free to members. Advertise that those signing up will receive a free copy of the ebook or gain access to a special Web area providing valuable tips and advice. Think of some sort of valuable incentive that will help push a visitor to become a member.

If you don't have time to write an ebook then I'd be more happy to provide you with one I'm almost finished writing titled, "Maximizing Your Online Dating Success". Just email me via with a request and I'll send you a copy for free that you can use as an incentive (or just for your own reading pleasure).

Related Links
» Online Dating Background Check Controversy Continues
» Book Review: Instructions to my Officers

Joe Tracy is publisher of Online Dating Magazine and is often quoted by the media in relation to online dating topics. His Inside the Online Dating Industry column is published every Friday.

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