Why Online Dating Criminal Background Checks Aren’t As Advertised

by on December 21, 2010 · 6 comments

Recent media attention has resurrected the notion that criminal background checks for online dating sites are helpful and should even be required by law. Sunday’s front page article in the New York Times described how companies selling background checks can “unmask Mr. or Ms. Wrong.” And today’s Good Morning America featured a segment called “Online Dating: Are you Flirting with a Felon?”

I was interviewed by both the Times and Good Morning America to say that these background checks are superficial, create a false sense of security, and that government should never mandate these for online dating sites. First of all, I should say that I’m personally involved in this issue. I met my wife on Match.com. We didn’t screen each other, at least not for a criminal past. I remember doing a simple search on her screen name however, and for a while thinking she could be someone who she wasn’t, though.

But for fun, I did a postmortem background check on myself, just to see what my now wife would have seen. First, I went to Intelius and spent $58 (warning: there’s a constant barrage of confusing upsells) to see criminal, civil judgment, property, name, telephone and social networking data. The result: nothing harmful thankfully! But also nothing particularly helpful, either. And the report included a family member that isn’t, and left out my brother that is. Then I went to MyMatchChecker and ordered the basic level screening (the two most expansive products–“Getting Serious” and “All About Me”–require social security numbers, which I doubt most people will not learn about the other until they actually get married). The site made it easy to not include all relevant info, and I didn’t, so there’s a delay on my check. But let’s assume it’s all good too (ahem).

So would my wife have used the absence of a negative history to assume I was a good person? Well, she shouldn’t have. Although these criminal screenings can help in some situations, they still have some serious shortcomings. They result in false negatives when criminal records don’t appear or may not include felony arrests that were plead down to misdemeanors.

And these sort of criminal screenings are not very inclusive–at all. According to True.com, the only dating site that screens every member, their database for the District of Columbia would catch only those people sent to jail between 1987 and 2002 (in addition to registered sex offenders, which anyone can search for free). But here’s the clincher, many counties don’t even report their criminal records to a publicly accessible central database. The last time I checked, in Illinois only 4 out of 102 counties report to a centralized database accessible to companies that perform background screenings. That’s a huge amount of people excluded from the background pool.

When I went to testify in Illinois a few years ago, one member off a House Judiciary committee, an ex-FBI agent, understood the failures of screenings that are conducted with a name only. He differentiated criminal screenings with the more thorough and reliable background check (based on social security number, date of birth, fingerprints, employment history, etc.) and helped persuade his colleagues that a dating bill that promotes screenings would create more harm than good.

Because these criminal checks are incomplete and often inaccurate, I also worry about the false positives that could exist, mistakenly leading one to believe that the other person is worse than they actually are. If my report came back with some speeding tickets—hypothetically speaking, of course—would she have met me for our first date? Well, I guess it’s too late now!

But there is good new here. There’s zero evidence that meeting people online is any more dangerous than meeting them at bars, or social functions or through friends. Indeed, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that the Internet makes such exchanges more transparent, rather than less.

Still, you should always be cautious when meeting people offline that you’ve met online. As a newly married Internet policy expert I know its good policy to share my wife’s feelings on this topic. And to protect yourself, she says to keep in mind the 3 Ps:

  • Meet in a public space,
  • Limit the amount of personal information you give out
  • Phone a friend to let them know where you’ll be on your date

-Braden Cox

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