LA TIMES -- Apr 25 -- True's founder and CEO, Herb Vest, believes that every online dating service should conduct background checks, as True does. "The primary motivation is to protect people from criminal predation online. I can't imagine anyone with a hatful of brains being against that." Vest said he spent $200,000 last year on lobbyists around the country. Although opponents charge that his goal is to gain publicity for his site, the legislation has met with at least some success in four states. The Michigan House of Representatives late last year passed legislation based on a model bill written by True; it wasn't approved by the state's Senate but was reintroduced in both houses this year. Similar measures are being considered in Florida and Texas, and an Ohio lawmaker plans to introduce one this month. A California version was pulled before a committee could vote on it this year. "This is one of those feel-good kind of legislations that politicians can get behind," said analyst Charlene Li of Forrester Research Inc.
Internet daters themselves are divided. John Knowlton, 52, a journalism teacher, said he was uncomfortable with government taking a role in the matter. And he found it unfair that online dating was being singled out. Elana Luber, 35, a lawyer in the Los Angeles area, is generally in favor of background checks, saying: "Who wouldn't want to have people screened for something so basic as whether or not they're a criminal?"
Texas state Rep. Will Hartnett, a Republican, put opponents in the same category as those who would "defend child molesters who prey on people on the Internet." He dismissed the worries about privacy being compromised. "As far as I am concerned," he said, "anyone convicted of a felony loses the right of privacy." But Vest acknowledges that it's not clear whether a search of criminal records would have prevented any of several cited incidents. And in California, Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) said she withdrew a background-check bill she had introduced after True's lobbyists couldn't give her concrete examples of anything untoward an online dater had endured that a check might have derailed. That's a key problem, said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego. Givens said her objections centered on shortcomings in the records culled by background-checking companies. "Because these sites don't cover every jurisdiction in the country, it could give a false sense of security," Givens said. True uses Rapsheets Criminal Records, owned by ChoicePoint for background checks. The service's coverage is spotty in some states. In California, Rapsheets can search Superior Court records in only four of the state's 58 counties. "The privacy laws in California are stricter than just about anywhere else," said Camille Gamble, director of marketing at Rapsheets, headquartered in Memphis, Tenn. She said the only statewide record the company was able to access for California was a sex-offender list.
Match.com has about 1 million paid subscribers, said spokeswoman Kristin Kelly. She defended the safety of the sites, saying that clients get to know one another online before they mutually decide to meet. She added that there had been fewer than 10 reported violent crimes in connection with people who met at Match.com in a decade of operation.
Vest, 60, defended his plan, saying that it was born less of business interests than a personal crusade against violence. Shortly before his second birthday in 1946, he said, his mother found his father dead at his cabinetry business. The death was judged a suicide, but recently, Vest said, he uncovered evidence that it was a homicide. (The case was featured on CBS-TV's "48 Hours" news program this year.) "The murder of my father certainly left its mark on me," Vest said. "I believe that I perhaps have a great deal more compassion about these matters. Deep down, I want to protect people from criminals." There could be long-term economic benefits from standardized background checks for the entire industry, said Vest, who founded a financial-services company that was sold to Wells Fargo & Co. in 2001 for $127.5 million. "If we gain the overall public acceptance of online dating, we can more than double the number of people coming to us," Vest said. "The other sites are being myopic; they are only interested in short-term gain."
Mark Brooks: The most thorough article on background checks so far. Your comments please...