Dinner, Movie -- and a Background Check -- for Online Daters

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 28, 2007; Page A01

Kimberly Hall was twice betrayed by men she met dating online. Both turned out to be married.

So she started doing background checks on her dates using a Web site called Intelius. Now, the 33-year-old from Laurel is engaged to a man she met on Blackplanet.com, but even he had to undergo record checks.

"He wasn't happy" about doing it, Hall said of her fiance. But eventually he turned over his Social Security number.

In the past decade, sites such as Yahoo Personals, Match.com and eHarmony helped make Web-based courtship mainstream for 10 million current daters. But some seasoned veterans say the thrill of using the Internet's power to find soul mates has given way to caution. Singles now draw on a growing arsenal of security and research tools -- from services that verify identity and background to companies that provide temporary phone numbers as a barrier to stalkers. Sites like DontDateHimGirl.com allow scorned lovers to warn others away from their bad dates.

The growth of the dating-security industry is part of the evolution of the Internet, where every powerful tool such as online banking or e-mail comes with a dark side of data theft and spam messages. MySpace, which started as a way for kids to exchange likes and dislikes, recently set up checks against sex-offender registries. By comparison, dating sites have been slow to adopt safety-filtering measures; few dating sites conduct their own background checks on members and only one seeks to verify marital status.

Thirty-one percent of American adults say they know someone who has used a dating Web site, and nearly 60 percent of Internet users said they think a lot of online daters lie about their marital status, according to Pew Internet & American Life Project study last year.

Dating site True.com is the only major Web firm that conducts criminal and marital background checks on all of its members -- a practice that keeps 2 percent of applicants from joining because they are convicted felons. Three percent flunk because they are married, the company said.

The company sued a felon who slipped through the background-check process. Herb Vest, chief executive of True.com, said he won't rule out suing a married person who gets onto the site, either.

"It's emotional harm. When you think of it, if you date someone . . . you fall in love with them and find out they're married, it's heartbreaking," Vest said.

One 56-year-old Texas woman discovered how dangerous it can be to try to navigate online dating without a security filter. She dated a man she met on Yahoo Personals for eight months before a simple Google search revealed he was convicted of murder and insurance fraud.

"It was really very scary," said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity for safety reasons. "It's very important to do a background check whenever you go out with someone, even if you have to pay" for it, she said. "You really cannot be too safe."

But marketing security and screening features on dating sites can cut both ways for the business.

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