State urged to lower risks of online dating
If Shannon Showalter turned to the Internet to find love today, she’d like to know whether the men posting profiles had undergone background checks.
“It has become such a popular thing, and there are a lot of weirdos out there,” said Showalter, a 32-year-old from northwest suburban Lakewood who met the man she married on Match.com.
It’s that lingering need for some measure of assurance that lawmakers in Illinois and across the nation are seeking to address.
Legislation that’s surfaced in Springfield would require online dating services operating in Illinois to post prominently and repeatedly on their websites whether they do background checks on clients.
If approved, the Illinois measure would go beyond disclosure laws already in place in a handful of states like Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry signed a similar bill last year before launching his Republican presidential bid.
The issue of safety in online dating is more than academic, a point buttressed by cases pending in Cook County.
In one, a North Side public relations executive who used a dating site to meet women for drinks was accused in September of sexually assaulting two of his dates, one in a Lincoln Park parking garage.
In a 2010 case, a California transplant who took up residence on Lake Shore Drive stands accused of bilking $225,000 from a Wilmette widow he met online and allegedly wooed with false promises of high-yield investments. Before he was accused of stealing her money, he was accused of taking millions of dollars from celebrities and professional athletes.
Not everyone, of course, will have a track record of bad behavior that would pop up in a background check. The North Side man accused of being a rapist, for example, had no prior record, according to authorities, but the other man had a record of securities charges that might have been detected.
Despite meeting several successful women, former online dater Al Martinez of northwest suburban Inverness said he supports the legislation because he’s heard too many bad stories. “It’s just too easy to go south,” said Martinez, 54.
Jonathan and Karrah Cambry are unsure of the need for government intervention. The Chicago couple Googled each other before turning their dating site flirtation into a face-to-face situation. They dated for more than a year and got married in October.
She is wary of how invasive the legislation might be, suggesting a crime committed during someone’s youth could unfairly keep them off the site.
The Illinois measure would force dating sites to disclose to customers whether they run criminal background checks before users can start contacting potential dates.
Dating services that say they do background checks would need to search government databases such as criminal court records and sex offender registries. Sites also would have to say what they do when they find someone with a record, including whether they allow such a person to be in the company’s dating pool.
In addition, the sites would need to post a variety of safety tips, ranging from warnings that background checks are not foolproof to suggestions not to put a home address on the website. Many sites already post such advice.
Companies that fail to follow the requirements — or that say they do background checks when they don’t — would violate state laws against consumer fraud and deceptive business practices. Each violation would carry a potential fine of up to $50,000.
Six years ago, a similar push to provide a modicum of regulation to online dating sites passed the Illinois House and then stalled.
Now Sen. Ira Silverstein is taking a crack at passing the measure in the Senate. Silverstein acknowledged the bill isn’t foolproof, but argued the legislation has merit because it would set up a new level of consumer protection with dating sites.
“They’re offering a service,” said Silverstein, D-Chicago. “There should be some due diligence.”
In the House, Rep. Michelle Mussman, D-Schaumburg, introduced a similar bill this week.
Rep. Jim Sacia, a former FBI agent, said he would oppose the latest version unless online dating services committed to having high-quality background checks performed by law enforcement authorities like the state police or FBI.
“My greatest fear would be the false sense of security,” said Sacia, R-Pecatonica.
At least two nationally known services, Match.com and eHarmony, screen subscribers against public sex offender registries. Doing so has helped eHarmony keep many known offenders off its site, the company said in a statement.
True.com, another major dating service, says it runs even more thorough background checks on applicants, searching state and county databases for felony and sex offense convictions. The site turns away about 2 percent of potential customers because they are convicted felons, sex offenders or married, company president Ruben Buell said.