Man Accused in Four Deaths Sought Internet Romance - Online Personals Watch: News on the Online Dating Industry and Business

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James Houran

Hi, Mark:

So far, you seem to be the only blog to cover this important story. It is true that alleged predators like this can be found offline, but it is also true that bars, supermarkets, book stores, and coffee houses are not businesses that exist to match people up. People themselves turn such outlets into "meat markets." By contrast, the online dating industry makes a healthy profit from providing a specific service. I feel since the industry is providing such a service there is an ethical responsibility to at least provide a minimum level of screening for our customers (or at least disclosure that no such screening is done). This is the rationale for TRUE's business model, as well as its push for disclosure laws on online dating sites.

Thanks,

James Houran, Ph.D.
Chief Psychologist, TRUE.com

Lee Phillips

This was certainly a regretable incident, but I'm curious what, if anything, this really has to do with online dating, or even dating in general for that matter. If the accused had a previous criminal record it wasn't mentioned. So assumming he did not, then a background check would not have turned up anything. So he had his profile on Match.com. So what? No one could have looked in their crystal ball and predicted that this person would kill.

The whole concept of dating sites conducting background checks is flawed. Anyone determined to circumvent them can do so quite easily, plus no one can predict any one elses future behavior. Next thing you know, True.com will come up with a personality test to try and do just that. Maybe they'll call it their CIS (Criminal Inclination Score)!

In my opinion, and that's all it is, the best way for dating sites to look out for the safety of their members is through an agressive educational program.

It's a shame that more dating sites don't host more local events for their members to meet in public, secure settings. There's nothing like meeting someone face to face and letting your instinct determine whether or not you would like to get to know them a little better.

Lee Phillips
Application Developer/Consultant

Patrick Kassebaum

Premier Singles has been hosting local weekly events in our markets for years. When you add our Member Verify and VerifyPlus we provide much of what you describe, Lee.

www.memberverify.com
www.premiersingles.com

Premier Singles offers many exciting weekly offline events such as sporting events, club outings, fine dining, museums, wine tasting, etc. Several times a year, Premier Singles will host larger gala events for fund raisers, holidays, and special concerts.

Members also organize their own events within our site: football parties, girls' nights out, and unofficial pre-event parties, support groups, and much.

Premier Singles becomes the local meeting point in each community it enters and encourages members to use our site for event planning and community interaction.

Premier Singles' offline services and local focus differentiate it from national online dating only services.

Typically, after joining Premier Singles or a National Dating Site, a member:

1. Posts his or her profile on the site

2. Searches through the other profiles on the site looking for a person with whom they'd like to communicate

3. Sends a private email message to the person

4. Begins communication back and forth via instant messenger or private email

5. Exchanges phone numbers and moves the conversation from email to the phone

How Premier Singles is different?
The steps below describe why Premier Singles is very different and by all of the media hype the future of this industry.

6. Agrees to meet the person at the next Premier Singles live event, a safe environment. Approximately 80% of Premier Singles' members meet for the first time in person at its events. (For national-only sites, due to safety concerns, many women choose to meet in public places, such as coffee shops. Often, they will have a friend come along to keep an eye on the date, by observing from a nearby table. If no friend can come along, they'll have a friend call in from time to time on a cell phone). This safety concern is the #1 concern women have when using dating sites and keeps many women from using dating sites.

7. Meets the "date" at the live event. It's a low-pressure environment with lots of activity, so the "couple" has an easier time with the "awkward silence" that plagues many first meetings. If things go well, they continue dating.

8. Continues process. If there's no interest in more meetings, there are lots of other people to meet, and new friends to make, that same night. (For national-only sites, if the date doesn't work out, you go home and start the process over again).

9. Gets involved. From this point, whether or not this date goes well, the Premier Singles' member learns about other activities and events in which other members are involved, such as social events, volunteering, sports leagues and the like, all in the local community. This community does not and cannot exist with national only dating sites.


Also our Marketing Directors are present on the local sites, online and offline at every Premier Singles' live event to greet and introduce members to each other and to answer questions about the site and upcoming events.

Our "Online" is also protected and serviced by 24 hour live support

Add into this our "Live" Member Verifying at events and our VerifyPlus and you can see we have thought this out well.

Premier Singles started out local in each market and by doing events. From conception we have been a "Local Singles Community" with member safety of utmost importance.

It has been a very difficult road but in light of the future of the industry "Local Singles Communities" I am now very pleased at our approach.

It is very difficult, and so far unsuccessful for a national dating site to become an effective Local Singles Community.

We are already there.


James Houran

The revelance of this story to offline and online dating should be beyond apparent, and TRUE has found background screenings to be quite effective rather than flawed. The "false sense of security" argument against background screenings that is promoted by many is actually what many informed politicians are finding to be the flawed position.

Further, it is ignorant to assert as fact that "no can predict any one's future behavior." Psychologists have long known and about and used the Theory of Reasoned Action to do just this under certain circumstances. Moreover, as TRUE has reported repeatedly on various posts, the Department of Justice has found a near 70% recidivism rate for felons -- that is, about 70% of past felons go on to conduct future felonies. Thus, felony screenings are an obvious and reasonable criterion to set as a minimum standard for consumer safety.

Finally, TRUE arguably has the most aggressive safety education program in the industry. To be sure, their proposed legislation push is part of that education campaign.

Thanks,

James Houran, Ph.D.
Chief Psychologist, TRUE.com

Lee Phillips

So Dr. Houran, are we now supposed to be alarmed for our personal dating safety every time we hear about a crime being committed by a first time offender? You never know, that criminal might be single and looking!

My question stands, would the alleged murderer mentioned in this article have been prevented from joining True.com because of the results of his background check? As you and I both know, the answer is a resounding NO because he had no prior felony convictions.

As for True having an aggressive safety education program I have to question your definition of aggressive. Do you email members with safety tips? Being a member, I've never seen one. Even going to your "Safer Dating" page is disappointing since the "Safety First" link is merely a link to another page and positioned well down the page. What am I missing? Where is the rest of the "safety education program" that you mention? I'm not saying that other sites do better, Match.com put's their link to safety tips in very small text at the bottom of the page.

As for my statement about no one being able to predict someone else's future behavior; perhaps it was ignorant in a particular context, but I believe the you deliberately miscontrued my meaning. My point is that with no historical information available about a subject it would be impossible to predict future actions. You speak of a 70% recidivism rate for felons, but again this is irrelevant to this particular discussion since the accused was not a felon.

Perhaps you have sacrificed your scientific objectivity to your employer's marketing and political agendas.

Warmest Regards,

Lee Phillips
Application Developer/Consultant

James Houran

Lee, thanks for the continued interest in TRUE.com. It is extremely puzzling why you are a member of TRUE.com today and why last year you came back to work for TRUE.com for a stint at your request if you so strongly disagree with TRUE's philosophy.

Actually, I do not claim to know whether or not this person had a prior felony record (or a marital record that TRUE would have detected). However, yes, people should be alarmed for their personal safety online and offline. There are plenty of past and recent case studies that attest to that. To do otherwise is ridiculous. This is just good social policy, rather than adhering to "marketing and political agendas." In fact, a representative of a popular online dating company that is aggressively fighting the proposed legislation had to reluctantly admit after repeated direct questioning from a Senator on the Senate Committee in MI that indeed there was a problem that needed to be addressed. I was there and heard it personally.

I do not know how you define "aggressive," but you are the first individual who has reported any problem finding and benefting from TRUE's safety page (largely displayed on the top horizontal!), as well as several detailed articles on safety tips within our FAQs, SECRETS online book, and in TRUE U Magazine articles. Moreover, yes, we do email tips to members if they direct questions to us in this respect and have elected to receive email from TRUE.com (remember canned spam laws!)

Additionally, I personally train our customer service represenatatives about safety issues, so they can address questions over the phone when applicable. Lastly, TRUE conducts, on average, at least three media interviews per week on safer dating. It is beyond a mantra with us by now :) In short, I think we do aggressively address the safety issue any way you look at it. And, I am happy to report that our customer feedback backs this up further.

I'm sorry if I misconstrued your meaning about predicting behavior -- I felt I was addressing your point directly. There are questionnaire scales that predict to a reasonable degree tendencies such as "faking good and faking bad" as well as antisocial or psychopathological traits, but these are not well developed for online use. So, in that sense you're right that without "historical" data it is virtually impossible to predict a specific behavior. However, the fact that one can't catch/detect all potential predators (or fully protect everyone) is no argument against using precautions that can catch more predators than what the bulk of the industry screens for now. After all, we do not eliminate all of our civic resources (like police and fire depts), even though we do not have enough resources and personnel to possibly save/protect everyone in every instance.

Herb Vest never said that background screenings as used today are the final solution -- but he believes that they are a good start. I believe in this position as well. When one actually reads the legislation in detail, it is not difficult to see our position as reasonable. My endorsement has nothing to do with a marketing or political agenda; such a blind charge is easy to make but laughable to those who know my ethics.

TRUE simply and sincerely believes it is good social policy. Further, informed, bipartisan policy makers across the US have agreed with our position. You certainly have a right to disagree with that position, but I recommend sticking to arguments that pertain directly to the benefits of the proposed legislation. That is the issue at hand. Speculative and unfounded assertions about so-called marketing and political agendas of TRUE.com do not reflect well on the individuals making them (and there are many).

Thanks,

James Houran, Ph.D.
Chief Psychologist, TRUE.com

Craig

Dr. Houran,

I have read your discussion with Lee Phillips with some interest. First, let me say that I think it is a great idea and a valuable service to it customers that true.com offers a background check. I think it is a smart differentiator that separates true.com from its competitors.

That being said, I'd be insulted if anyone suggested to me that Herb Vest and his company True.com were pushing this legislation primarily for altruistic motives. Let's be realistic here. Herb Vest is out to make his company money. I suspect that after the round of layoffs last year that both True.com and Match.com both have had to execute, the competition in the online dating service market must fiercer than ever and it is probably increasingly difficult to find profits. Thus it is important for these companies to come up with increasingly creative ways to differentiate themselves from the hundreds of other, similar sites out there and reel in new customers. This legislation is definitely a means to that end.

Think what will happen if Mr. Vest succeeds in pushing this legislation through. True.com will then become one of the few (if not the only) online dating service that fully complies with the new law. Match.com and its like will have to play “catch-up” to come into compliance. If true.com has any kind of non-compete clause with Rapsheets and similar background checking services (which I’d be surprised if it did not) this could be difficult and expensive for its competitors to accomplish. I’m not sure how many options are out there for online services to electronically to do automated background checks. These services could be plentiful or almost non-existent—I’m not really sure. If the competitors are unwilling or unable to comply with the law for whatever reasons, the law requires them to display a warning on their front page. This is some bad PR and will likely scare a lot of customers away; something akin to the Surgeon General’s warning on cigarettes. This is definitely to True.com’s advantage. Also, the whole push for legislation also gives true.com some well needed media exposure. If nothing else, it is definitely good for True for this legislation to get talked about.

So I don’t think it is “laughable” for Mr. Phillips to question your objectivity in this matter. You may very well sincerely believe in the company’s push for this bill. But even if you did not, we could hardly expect you as a True.com employee to say otherwise! And certainly it is obvious that any altruistic motives that Herb Vest may have about the legislation are secondary to the financial benefits that he hopes to accrue from it. Certainly, neither I nor Mr. Phillips are the only ones to question the legislation or its motives: http://news.com.com/True+love/2010-1071_3-5591000.html

As I said early, I think the background check is a valuable service to online dating customers. But making it illegal strikes me as almost un-American. Put yourself in E-Harmony’s or some other company’s shoes. Your competitor is lobbying the government to tell you how you can run your business and what notices you have to have on your site if you don’t comply. It smacks of a violation of free speech and of being anti-competitive. What if you as a company have some other “community” driven website whose primary purpose isn’t match making? Do they have to comply with law? If I as an individual own an online BBS or forums section on one of my sites and people start posting their personal pictures or profiles, do I have to do background checks? Sites that offer classified ads such as CraigsList http://www.craigslist.org/about/cities.html (no relation to myself) could be interpreted as a “match making” site since they offer personal ads. Part of the glory of the internet is the relative freedom and cheapness with which individuals can post information, and start their own blogs, forums, discussion groups and other online communities. Where does the law draw the line between these sites and sites that are “officially” labeled dating sites.

If on the other hand, I as an individual DO want to start my own online dating site specifically, this certainly raises the bar in being able to come up with the finances necessary to purchase or partner with a service that can provide the legally necessary background checks. It makes it more difficult for new sites to appear and could potentially stifle competition and innovation.

I’m not saying there are no benefits. I’m not saying that there aren’t any problems with online dating that need to be addressed. But I wonder if you have thought through the implications of this kind of legal restriction and its broadness when applied to other websites out there on the internet or yet to come. It just sounds to broad.

Sincerely,

-Craig
Former True.com Employee
Software Developer

Lee Phillips

Dr. Houran, it is true that I worked as a contract developer at True.com not once, but twice. I thoroughly enjoyed the majority of my time there and found both the people and the environment to my liking, with a few glaring exceptions.

As a developer/consultant, I feel it is my responsibility to express my opinion regarding any technical decisions that I might not agree with, but the same cannot be said of business decisions. I may have strong opinions one way or the other about a business or marketing decision, but I would be out of line if I expressed those opinions to my client in anything more than a casual way.

I have never felt that the online background checks were a good idea. In that Craig and I differ. I agree that they will stop a felon from becoming a member the FIRST time he/she tries, but if he/she has any intelligence whatsoever then he/she will just sign up again using false information. To my knowledge, True.com does not have any way of preventing this and speaking from technical viewpoint it would be very difficult to do so.

As for the legislation True is pushing down the industry's throat, I have never agreed with it. It seems obvious to everyone I speak with that it is a waste of the time and money to pursue such legislation. Of course it's the taxpayer's money that I'm concerned about, not Herb Vest's. If a person has ALL the facts about the effectiveness of the online background checks that True conducts I believe that they would agree with me. Remember, I have direct exposure to the code that performs the check and I know what variables are involved. Also, True.com puts our elected representatives in a difficult spot because if they don't agree with the legislation, it may seem that they are not concerned with the safety of their constituency.

Rather than legislating, why not form an industry standards commitee and work together to determine what is best? There are many benefits to a self governed industry, not the least of which is the ability to react swiftly to changing market and social conditions. So instead of being the bully, I suggest True.com become the facilitator.

Best Regards,

Lee Phillips
Application Developer/Consultant

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