updated 3/28/2005 11:49:06 PM ET 2005-03-29T04:49:06

Sandie Cornillie did a double take when she first heard about a bill that would force online dating sites to say whether criminal background checks have been conducted on their members.

The 46-year-old divorcee from Portage prefers finding dates on the Internet over visiting the local bar or relying on a friend to play matchmaker. The Web is less intimidating, more convenient and arguably safer, she said.

"It's a very safe way of getting to know someone before we meet face to face," said Cornillie, who has tried online dating for five years. "I haven't met any rapists or any crazy people. It's kind of up to you to be careful."

Some lawmakers, though, say that as online dating becomes more popular, users need better protection from predators. Twenty-six million people visited dating sites in January, according to the Internet research firm Nielsen/NetRatings.

The Senate is considering legislation that would require an Internet dating company serving Michigan residents to disclose on its Web site whether it has conducted criminal background checks on users, based solely on the names provided.

A provider also would have to disclose the limitations of background checks and urge members to adhere to safe dating practices.

Republican Sen. Alan Cropsey of DeWitt is sponsoring the bill.

"There are inherent dangers in the whole area of the Internet," he said. "Something needs to be done."

The measure has divided the Senate, and the split is not solely along party lines. A Senate panel voted 4-3 to ship the bill to the full chamber, with one Democrat joining three Republicans in support. Two Democrats and one Republicans voted "no."

Backers say just posting the background-check disclosure would go a long way toward boosting awareness of the possible dangers of meeting people online. Learning that other users are not known criminals would provide a sense of security. They say knowing that checks have not been done would arm users with valuable information.

But critics — including most online sites — say any feeling of security would be deceptive because there is no way to ensure people give their real names.

Some wonder if government can effectively regulate the Internet, and some users such as Cornillie worry sites would pass on the screening costs to them. Others question whether the bill is being pushed mainly for financial gain.

The legislation is backed by True.com, the only online dating service that performs criminal screening. Similar legislation has been proposed in five other states: California, Ohio, Virginia, Florida and Texas.

True.com, a relative newcomer to the industry, cites incidents where people have been shot, stabbed or scammed by dates they met online.

Herb Vest, founder of the site, said the Michigan legislation would save lives, property and heartache.

"As an industry, we owe it to our members to inform them of the potential hazards," he said.

Detractors, however, say the measure blatantly favors True.com and argue that the free market should drive demand for background checks, not the government.

Match.com spokeswoman Kristin Kelly said the company just facilitates an age-old process _ meeting people _ with new-age technology. Users still take the same precautions as those who meet people in a bar, she said.

"Safety in dating, that's a concern for everyone," Kelly said. "You're meeting someone new for the first time. You have to be cautious. But if we get too far down the path of paranoia, we don't see what point that serves."

Residents don't want Michigan to become a "nanny" state, she said, arguing that meeting people online is no less safe than meeting in a restaurant or at a party.

Similar legislation passed the House last year before stalling in the Senate. Its chances for success this time are unclear.

In a debate on the floor last week, Democratic Sen. Mark Schauer of Battle Creek said some lawmakers are wavering because users still could hide their shady pasts by using fictitious names.

"That's a fundamental flaw with this bill," he said.

But Cropsey said the main goal is to heighten awareness about the possible dangers of meeting people online.

The Senate could vote on the bill in April.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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