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Online Dating Magazine > Columns > Office Hours with Dr. Jim > Online Dating Background Checks

Office Hours With Dr. Jim
by James Houran, Ph.D

In this column, "Dr. Jim" honestly and candidly answers your questions about dating, love and sexuality. He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear – he tells you what you need to hear. Dr. Jim is committed to offering you guidance based on responsible clinical practice and hard data from the latest scientific studies. Send Dr. Jim your questions today for consideration in an upcoming issue.

Online Dating Background Checks

Quick Access:
Do mandatory background checks make people safer?

I heard that New Jersey just passed a law requiring online dating sites to conduct background checks. Do you agree that this makes people safer?


January 16th, 2008 – a date which will live in infamy (no pun intended, really). This date marks the enactment of a controversial new law related to the online dating industry. The New Jersey State Legislature passage of bills A4304 and S1977, known as the Internet Dating Safety Act, actually does not require that online dating sites conduct background screenings. It only mandates that dating sites inform consumers in a conspicuous way on the site as to whether or not such screenings are done.

To understand the relevance of this development, it is important to review background screenings versus background checks. Background screenings are simply cross-checks of a given name against various databases to see whether that name is associated with a given marital status or felony criminal record. Unfortunately, many people have the same name, so false positives can occur. Also, databases are notoriously incomplete and the quality of databases varies by state, so data by definition are unreliable at best. Background checks are something else. These involve cross-checking databases against a known person based on more than a name, for example, a Social Security Number or finger print. Background checks also involve more than online databases, so the coverage is always more comprehensive and valid. Background screenings are cursory and can be inexpensive, whereas background checks are comprehensive and costly.

The fact is that most dating sites do not even offer any type of background screenings for a couple of reasons. First, many professionals state that background screenings as currently practiced are ineffective and thus give customers a false sense of security. Online screenings using a name provided by a person are not the same as full blown background checks; plus, there is not effective way to prevent someone from giving a false name. Second, the costs involved with offering such services on a mass scale would be passed along to the customer, and price increases are not what the industry needs or wants. Both of these criticisms are undeniably valid. Perhaps online warnings should also include disclaimers about the efficacy of supposed screenings. Of course, that would nullify the initial warning, so what’s the point to begin with?

I personally feel that background screenings, and other pro-security features, are good as optional value-adds to customers. Some people want them, whereas others do not. It makes sense for companies to offer value-adds and allow customers to select and pay for the services that are important to them. Likewise, some argue that the NJ legislation is unfair, since it targets online dating sites and does not address other forms of matchmaking, like classified ads and the like. That is a strong point, and I doubt legislators have a good answer to that one. After all, predators have used those forms of matchmaking for finding victims much longer than they have the Internet.

That said, I certainly feel that online dating sites have a responsibility to address safety in an active way. Bars, bookstores and coffee houses do not charge people money to “match them up” and “provide social introductions.” Those businesses exist to sell drinks and books. The public makes them meat markets – not the owners. On the other hand, online matchmaking sites exist and make millions of dollars to essentially fix you up. This business model, in my humble view, implies some inherent ethical responsibility to provide at least a minimum level of safety. Instead of conspicuous warnings, it may be a better use of online space and a graphic artist’s skills to create online dating safety education that is more conspicuous than what many sites currently offer now.

Online daters need good, ongoing education about topical scams, guidance on evaluating others and tools to help them police themselves. Reputation management services, which allow daters to post feedback about other online daters for all to see, have been discussed here before and may now become extremely popular.  Also popular are identity verification services and businesses that validate others’ online photos. It is more likely that the average online dater is going to be burned by lies about a person’s identity or mislead about outdated photos than be taken in by a sociopath on the prowl.

Related Links:
» Online Dating Background Checks Controversy
» Online Dating Background Checks Controversy Continues
» Online Dating Services Oppose Regulation of Online Dating

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