As Valentine's Day approaches, all is not lovey-dovey in the high-stakes online dating industry.
The contentious issue of the moment — pitting one of the three biggest companies, True.com, against its major rivals — is whether online dating services can enhance their clients' safety by conducting criminal background screenings of would-be daters.
Last month, New Jersey became the first state to enact a law requiring the sites to disclose whether they perform background checks. True.com — the only large online dating service that already does such screenings — was elated by its successful lobbying and hopes other states will follow suit.
"The online dating industry tends to get a real bad rap, because of criminal activity," said True.com's founder and chief executive, Herb Vest. "If we were to clean up, there's hordes of off-line singles who'd come online to find their soul mate."
The pitch appeals to women like Jayne Hitchcock of York, Maine, who was victimized by three years of online harassment and cyberstalking in late '90s after someone assumed her identity and sent sexually explicit messages. When Hitchcock later decided to try online dating, she turned to True.com.
"There are people out there looking for a site where they'd feel a little bit safer," said Hitchcock, who recently met her fiance on True.com.
However, Vest's many critics in the industry say he is acting mostly out of self-interest. They contend that True.com's screening method — running names through state databases of criminal records — is incomplete and too easily thwarted, potentially creating a false sense of security for customers.
"It's so superficial that it's worthless," said Braden Cox, policy counsel with NetChoice, a coalition of e-commerce companies that includes Yahoo, AOL and other major players in online dating.
Match.com, one of largest dating services, said it had been assessing online background checks for six years and concluded they offered no extra protection.
"Match.com is disappointed New Jersey has enacted a flawed and unconstitutional law and we will explore opportunities to challenge it," a company statement said.
Even sponsors of the New Jersey bill conceded it was imperfect, but suggested it would at least make online daters more aware of security concerns.
There are no authoritative national statistics on serious crimes arising from online dating, but such cases periodically make headlines. A Philadelphia man, Jeffrey Marsalis, was accused of raping several women he met through Match.com, and was sentenced in October to at least 10 years in prison. A Cleveland firefighter, George Greer, was indicted last June for raping a woman he met through an Internet dating site.
An online dater in New York City, actor/musician Franca Vercelloni, said background screenings "couldn't hurt matters" but should not be a reason for dropping one's guard.
"You're not going to rely on what you learn from the online profile anyway," said Vercelloni, who's in her late 20s. "Dating in New York City is just as hard as trying to get a job or an apartment. You have to take a risk."
The New Jersey law, similar to ones considered in other states, will require online dating services to notify their customers in the state whether criminal background screenings have been conducted.
If a dating service doesn't perform such screenings, it must acknowledge that in large capital letters in every electronic communication with members from New Jersey, who would be identified by zip codes they provide when registering. Details of the notification rules are still being worked out.
Services that do conduct screenings must disclose that fact and say whether they allow people with criminal convictions to use the site. Those services also must note that background checks are not foolproof, but that disclaimer doesn't have to be displayed as prominently as the disclosure by companies that don't do screenings.
Critics say the type of screening envisioned by the law — checking for a particular name in databases of criminal convictions — has inherent flaws: users could give fake names, and many dangerous people may not be in the databases. Methods used in more probing background checks — such as fingerprint scans and research into employment records and Social Security numbers — are not required by the law.
More broadly, some worry that New Jersey's action will push other states to regulate the online dating industry, creating a hodgepodge of laws that will drive up operating costs and force some companies out of business. Some in the industry say they'd prefer federal legislation addressing background checks, rather than a patchwork of state laws.
Huge sums are at stake. Projections by Jupiter Research, an Internet consultancy, suggest the online dating market now totals $700 million or more, and Online Dating Magazine estimates that more than 20 million people visit online dating services each month.
A relative newcomer — founded in 2003 — Dallas-based True.com has drawn attention with racy ads as well as background screenings. Avowedly for singles only — not straying spouses — it claims to be the only dating service that checks on marital status as well as criminal convictions.
"We can't guarantee that criminals can't get on our site, but we can guarantee that they'll be sorry they did," the site declares. "We report violators to appropriate federal, state and local authorities, including parole boards."