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Dating Sites Are Not Responsible For Member Safety

wade ridley

One of the statements that stood out during the Online Dating Summit CEO panel was that online dating sites facilitate introductions. We are so used to dating sites boasting about their matching systems, yet dating sites are simply putting likely candidates in front of users. You don’t date on dating sites, which really should be considered introduction services.

I was reminded of this when I learned this week about a woman who was stabbed by a man she met on Match.com.

Time Magazine:

Mary Kay Beckman first met Wade Ridley after the online service paired the two up in September 2010, and knew him for only 10 days before breaking up with him.

Four months later… Ridley hid in her garage and eventually attacked her, stabbing her 10 times and kicking her in the head.

It turns out that the man was also wanted for killing an ex-girlfriend. I don’t know if he had a previous record and would have been caught by a background check. What we do know is that the attacker killed himself while in prison last year.

The number of attacks originating from dating site connections will continue to grow as more and more people try online dating. Over the years I’ve been contacted by scores of women with heart-wrenching stories who have been attacked on dating sites. It’s incredibly sad and disheartening to hear from them and I empathize deeply with the victims.

Let’s be clear, background checks will not prevent these types of crimes from happening. Just like limiting the size of an assault rifle’s magazine won’t stop the deluge of senseless massacres from occurring. Emotionally disturbed people will always find a way to inflict damage regardless of proposed legal measures.

Dating sites cannot be held responsible for the actions of their members. I am not a legal scholar, but I believe there is legal precedent for people getting into similar situations with people they met in a bar. What you do on your own time after you leave a bar is your own responsibility. Bars, however, can be held liable if a patron is over-served and goes on to commit a felony.

Legislators, the dating industry and dating site users are faced with the ramifications of imposing background checks en masse. It’s not fair to the dating industry if only a subset of some members on certain sites receive background checks.  If background checks are required for all online daters, most of the dating industry would collapse under the regulatory, financial and operational burden. That’s the outcome True.com has been hoping for as they have slowly pushed their dating site background check legislation agenda on a state-by-state basis. Dating site marketing via legislative efforts. Actually very shrewd, but their execution has stalled in recent times.

It’s also not fair to online daters who clearly misunderstand that the majority of dating sites don’t do background checks. Regardless of if a dating site offers background checks, people will continue to exercise poor judgment to the stunning degree we see today. And what about the false sense of security that may overcome singles? If a site offers background checks, will they relax their personal safety protocols?

Background checks will result in some percentage of bad actors not being allowed to join dating sites. But as I understand it, those members having background checks need to be paying members. Match has something like 20 million profiles and two million paying members, and those two million members are the ones receiving behind-the-scenes background checks. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

And what about free dating sites? They can’t run background checks on people because all they have is a throwaway email address. Well they could on their freemium members. If the dating industry is forced to offer background checks, countless free dating sites would go dark immediately. It would be interesting to see the split between the numbers of people on free sites vs. paid sites.

Dating sites will be faced with additional legal and data costs, not to mention impact background checks have on marketing, customer perception and other business areas. People want and expect to be safe online, yet we are not willing to go to the additional effort or absorb the cost of background checks. Will the benefits of full-on background checks outweigh the costs to singles and the dating industry?

Why someone hasn’t come up with a dating site where everyone is background checked is remarkable!

What are some other ways to get closer to background checks for all online daters? For both paid and free mobile apps, a mobile phone number could be matched to a paid mobile app that has that person’s credit card on file. Or a phone number lookup back-traced to the user’s carrier billing account. That would be enough to run a check on that member. Or do a lookup against their iTunes account, which could be discovered by looking at a phone’s device identifier. This is only the first step, identity verification. That data would then be sent through a background check process. This would require the dating industry to create ties with outside vendors like Google and Apple, which both have hundreds of millions of credit cards on file.

Whoever figures out how to tie a mobile number to an authenticated identity and flowing that data through a background check is going to make a lot of money in the dating industry.

Consider tying a person’s identity to their Facebook or some other well-established profile (Twitter?). Verified Facebook profiles would do the trick and that’s another couple hundred million dollars a year for Facebook right there. Pay $5, then FB has your credit card on record, which can then be used for the background check. Or Facebook can support a third-party app if they don’t want to go all-in on verification and checks. Lots of monetization options here, like “Your background check brought to you by Trojan/Absolute/Target, etc.

Maybe Facebook will end up being the de facto identity verification and background check provider for the dating industry (along with many others). Facebook already has a security and fraud prevention team that is orders of magnitude larger than the entire dating industry combined.

Of course there are *many* flaws in this logic when it comes to the actual implementation, this is a thought exercise, and a sketchy one at best.

Background checks are a commodity market. They are basically a web services that returns pass or fail, leaving it up to the dating site to take that information and act on it accordingly. Remember Honesty Online or eHarmony’s RelyID? Those consumer-facing identity verification services, don’t confuse them with background checks, were initially thought of as the keystone for the whole consumer-initiated verification/check process. I really thought for a while that Verified Member badges would start showing up on more dating sites. But that is a whole other topic which I have written about at length in the past.

Finally, there are several ways around a background check. Two that come to mind are signing up for a site with someone else’s or a stolen credit card. On most sites you cannot contact someone if you are not a paying member, but you might be able to find them on Facebook or some other social site. Hello Facebook Graph Search. Find people on paid dating sites, Friend them on Facebook. We can argue about intent all day long, but this is happening now.

Many other nefarious options for spoofing identity exist. If and when dating sites get behind more robust safety features, you can be sure that the bad actors will engage in even more complex activities to stay a step ahead of the dating police.

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