Perils of online dating prompt safety efforts
By Verna Gates
Josie Phyllis Brown never had a chance against her 6-foot-6-inch
(2-meter) killer, although his stature was one of the few things she
should have known from his Internet profile.
John Christopher Gaumer, who confessed to the murder and led Baltimore
County police to Brown's body on February 7, listed his height and
other attributes in his quest for dates on MySpace.com, a free
Internet social site owned by News Corp. where mostly young people
connect for friendship and romance.
Some personal profiles on the Web site are frighteningly
revealing. People publish their birth dates, schools they attend, even
clubs they will frequent on a given Saturday night, complete with a
cellphone number for whomever might care to join them.
"Think about, there are millions of people we're dealing with here and
somehow people think they are all preachers," said Paul Falzone, chief
executive of Together Dating service, a brick-and-mortar company that
performs background checks on all members. Falzone says background
checks result in 10 percent of applicants being rejected.
For most of the 40 million people using Internet sites for dating and
socializing each month, a disastrous 15 minutes over coffee at
Starbucks is the worst they will suffer.
But there is enough danger out there that some U.S. states are
considering legislation to force Internet dating sites to police
themselves, while companies that do background checks say business is
Only a small percentage of "intimate partner violence" -- nearly
700,000 such incidents were reported to the U.S. Department of Justice
in 2001 -- originate from Internet dating, according to Mark Brooks,
editor of Online Personals, which monitors the dating industry.
For upstart online service http://True.com, even one assault is too
much. The site performs background checks on every member, ferreting
out sex offenders, felons and married people. About 11 percent of
those who apply are rejected.
"To think a felon could find a victim, especially for a heinous crime,
gives me the heebie-jeebies. I do all I can do to prevent that," said
Herb Vest, chief executive of http://True.com.
Nevertheless, Robert Wells, convicted of lewd and lascivious acts with
a child under 14, passed the http://True.com screening and posted a
profile on that site. The company is suing him, claiming he committed
The small competitor is pressing for legislation to force big Web
sites like http://Match.com and http://Yahoo.com to perform background
checks, or clearly state they don't. So far, California, Florida,
Texas and Michigan have considered legislation.
http://Yahoo.com and http://Match.com the industry leaders with 6
million and 15 million monthly visitors espectively, continually
stress dating safety.
Match.com forces the 60,000 people who sign up for the service each
month to review its safety policies before they subscribe. On both
sites, every profile is reviewed and approved by human eyes to screen
out excess information or obscenity.
Around 15 percent of postings are rejected, according to Kristin Kelly,
spokesperson for Match.com.
That is not enough for some.
DARK SIDE OF THE 'NET
"The Internet has its dark side and they are not doing everything they
can to keep sexual predators and gold diggers off these sites. If you
don't police yourselves, the government will come in and police you,"
said Michigan state Sen. Alan Cropsey.
Cropsey has sponsored a bill that would force Web sites to do
background checks, and it proposes posting a warning label on sites,
much like those on cigarette packs.
Cropsey's legislation met vigorous resistance from the online
"There are other ways to get to who that person is, rather than have
the government ram a business model down your throat," said Abraham
Smilowicz, chief executive of Webdate Inc.
Webdate uses real-time video as a safety measure, allowing prospective
dates to chat and get a look at each other via webcams.
Daters themselves are also stepping forward to create their own
safeguards. Companies like Safedate and Honestyonline are springing
up to run background checks for individuals and grant their stamp of
Honestyonline will even come to a home, weigh prospective daters, take a
picture and leave with bodily fluids to confirm disease-free status.
William Bollinger, executive vice president of National Background Data,
said his business had grown 600 percent in the past two years.
Even a background check would not have saved Lori Leonard. The boyfriend she
met via the Internet was convicted of her murder on January 27 in Hudson
His record showed only misdemeanors from assaults on former girlfriends, not
the sort of information churned up in basic background checks. Leonard
endured two assaults before her death.
According to Dr. John Gray, author of "Men are from Mars, Women are from
Venus," education is the solution.
"The warning signs often come out right away. Beware of someone who can
solve all your problems or who comes on really strong," said Gray.
Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited.
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