Online Dating Sites Self-Regulate, Without Government Coercion

Feeling lonely this holiday season? Maybe you’re thinking of signing up for an online dating service. You’d hardly be alone. An estimated 40 million Americans have tried online dating at some point. There are the well-established sites such as eHarmony and Match.com, which charge a monthly fee and cater to a broad audience.

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But there also are host of sites that focus on niche matchmaking. As you might expect, many such sites cater to specific religious or ethnic groups. But the specialization goes far deeper. There’s a dating site for pretty much any type of person out there. For those suffering from mental illnesses, there’s No Longer Lonely. For cowboys and cowgirls, there’s Equestrian Cupid. If you love Ayn Rand, you may find your Dagny Taggart at The Atlasphere.

Online dating is surprisingly unregulated, considering how popular, not to mention profitable, it has become. The U.S. federal government’s only significant intervention was the 2007 International Marriage Broker Regulation Act. This law applies to dating services whose main purpose is to connect U.S. citizens with foreigners, a distinct minority in the array of dating sites out there. The law requires such services to ensure, among other things, that their U.S. clients are not registered sex offenders.

Several states have started to regulate online dating. New Jersey requires dating sites to post notifications about whether or not they’ve performed background checks on their users. The sites are not required to actually perform background checks, they are only required to let users know whether they do. New York has a law requiring dating sites to provide their users with safety tips, e.g., arrange the first face-to-face meeting in a public space.

The risk of fraud is still high. You can’t tell if the site itself has created fake profiles to inflate its membership count. Also, if the Crown Prince of Nigeria emails you asking for money, the email usually ends up in your spam filter. When fraudsters are contacting you via your online dating profile, they may be harder to identify. They tend to target the profiles of older individuals. If they’re foreign, they can say they’re Americans who are “temporarily” abroad.

In response, many different private sites are offering guidance on how to spot fake online dating profiles. These range from blogs to the dating sites themselves. OKCupid, a huge free dating service that operates around the world, offers guidelines on how to be safe and avoid scams. You can also buy apps or services to assist you. Mymatchchecker.com is run by former police officers. They can run various types of background checks on your date for small fee.

Even the U.S. government offers some advice. USA.gov has an article titled Tips to Avoid Online Dating Scams. The article points out that fraudsters could try to turn a conversation in an intimate direction. Then they threaten to publish your conversation unless you pay them off.

The U.S. government’s approach is still very hands-off compared to some other countries. For instance, in Singapore, a government agency called the Social Development Network (SND) accredits private dating services. The SDN’s website provides a calendar of singles events organized by the dating services. In the 1980s, the SDN engaged directly in matchmaking – its primary targets were Singapore’s college-educated women who often remained unmarried. Their efforts were not a great success. In the 2000s, the SND shifted to accrediting private agencies.

In the Netherlands, the situation is similar to the United States. There is very little government regulation, thus nine dating sites announced this week that they would start policing themselves. They are launching a “safe dating” certification. Sites who achieve the certification can display a blue logo with a lock with a heart shape in place of a keyhole.

The dating sites spent a year working with the Consumentenbond, the Netherlands’ leading consumer rights advocacy group, to develop the criteria for certification. The site must have procedures in place to ensure that user profiles are authentic, the terms and conditions of a subscription must be clearly spelled out, and the site’s staff must be easy to reach in case users have complaints.

“The safe dating certification was born out of the need to assure users that an online dating sate is safe and trustworthy,” Lex Boost told the Dutch media. “This is badly needed because more and more dating sites have launched in recent years. There’s a jungle of over 500 dating sites. They’re not all equally dependable. Thus this is a good way to separate the wheat from the chaff.”

Boost works for Pepper, a Dutch dating site that offers icebreakers to help start conversations between users. The staff review every profile to try to eliminate fraud as much as possible.

In the United States, there is currently no such certification program. Well-established dating sites that require membership fees are generally seen as trustworthy. True.com, a dating site launched in 2003, promises to conduct background checks to check if members have a criminal records and whether they are married. Unfortunately, True.com is not just content to try to gain a competitive advantage by offering a safer dating alternative. It actively lobbies states to pass laws, like New Jersey’s, which require online dating sites to disclose whether they conduct background checks on users.

Online dating has been so successful largely because it has been free to evolve and grow without government interference. If further safety precautions are needed, then a voluntary certification is far more likely to succeed than legislation.

Follow Emma Elliott Freire on Twitter. Keyboard image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.

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