Online dating companies should be taking advantage of the RCMP criminal records system to keep convicted criminals off their sites, say experts in the identity verification business.
"There is no perfect instant criminal record system on the planet," David Dinesen told CBC News. "But Canada is the best in the world. No question."
"If I was CEO of the online dating company and I had a way to make it safer for my customers, or give an avenue for my customers to check … I'd want to do it," said Dinesen, who heads Checkwell Decision Corp., Canada’s largest background checking company.
"There's far more financial crimes that happen in Canada than sexual crimes" he said. "Like by an order of thousands to one … so I would suggest that people need to be much more worried about a guy wanting to date you to clear out your bank account and jewelry box and or infiltrate your family and clear out their bank accounts, than you actually getting assaulted. And both things can ruin your life."
Checking criminal records
Strict privacy laws that limit access to the 4.2 million criminal records in the Canadian Police Information Centre to police and certain agencies make it almost impossible to obtain the criminal record of an individual without their authorization. The only legal method — used by journalists, researchers, companies and individuals — to learn of an individual’s criminal past is through court documents. Read more here
Criminal backgrounds of Canadian daters could be checked without breaking privacy laws, because the daters could authorize or volunteer to provide their criminal conviction record check to the dating sites, he said.
"Shouldn't people be able to find ways to protect themselves?" agreed Sandy Boucher, a senior investigator with Grant Thornton, a Canadian accounting, advisory and risk management firm.
"If it's done properly and reasonably and legitimately, and it's not people selling criminal records out the back door on the sly, then why not?" Boucher said.
Experts suggest the criminal records system, housed in the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC), is the ideal tool for online dating companies because it is the repository of criminal, parole, fingerprint and other police records for the country.
RCMP detachments and provincial and municipal police forces have been feeding information into the database since the 1960s, making it a potential one-stop criminal record source for online dating companies, experts said.
Online dating companies such as PlentyofFish, Match.com, eHarmony and others should offer options to their Canadian clients, Boucher and Dinesen said.
A dating website could feature separate "screened" or "premium membership" categories allowing daters to submit their own criminal conviction record checks and then communicate with others who had done the same.
"I would think that online dating services could sell a wonderful niche product to men or women ... make sure who you are dating is who you are dating, and charge a premium," Dinesen said.
"You know, for the price of a nice dinner you're going to know that you're not dating a career criminal."
Experts suggest that online dating sites could also direct a dater to background verification companies that would facilitate the criminal conviction check, but only at his or her request.
"It should be done with the proper authorization of the person whose record you are checking," Boucher said. "We do it all the time in commercial circumstances."
Dinesen said his company has pitched such a proposal to several online dating services, with no nibbles. He had discussions with one firm, but that interest disappeared after the dating service was sold.
Online dating pioneer Lavalife was sold in 2010, but did not respond to CBC News queries about whether it had been approached by Dinesen's company.
'For the price of a nice dinner you're going to know that you're not dating a career criminal.'—David Dinesen, head of Checkwell Decision Corp.
It's estimated there are about 100 million singles in North America, with 30 million to 40 million using about 1,500 online dating services in varying degrees of seriousness – from the occasional gander to dedicated searching and dating.
There are no precise numbers regarding Canadian online daters. Many have multiple accounts, usually free, and are registered with companies that conduct business in Canada and the United States.
What those daters have in common is the desire to meet someone, which causes them to let down their defences, making them the "perfect victims," Boucher said. And the online world allows fraudsters to target victims quickly, and amass personal information that they use to create a sense of comfort and intimacy.
"We're talking about emotion and romance, and it's an area where people are particularly vulnerable because they're actually, deliberately, switching off all their sort-of logical brain, and they're switching on the emotional side of themselves. So they make decisions based on non-rational things sometimes," Boucher said.
He told CBC News about a case of a Toronto woman who married a man she'd met online. Only later did she learn of his Canadian and American criminal convictions.
"If there'd been some kind of vetting, then he would not have passed the vetting, we know now. And if she had known anything about his background, she wouldn't have gone near him."
'Rolling the dice'
"I think that every website should have at least what you're saying, in terms of having the option to use an area of people that have been screened for criminal records. And at least give people the choice," sighs Sarah, a Toronto professional who learned the hard way.
She says she was swindled by a man she met online. He is accused of defrauding three women he met through online dating sites, and now faces 23 charges. He has previous convictions for frauds, breaking and entering and forgeries dating back to 1995.
"It would have been much more desirable to know, or feel secure in the people you're communicating with versus rolling the dice and thinking that something like this would happen to you, because it wasn't even on my radar that something like this would happen," says Sarah.
But she says she realizes not all daters have the time, money or desire to do their own criminal record checks. And companies may be unwilling to ask daters to forward the personal information.
"These people are running a business, they're not going to want to scare people away."
The RCMP confirmed to CBC News there are no limits on what Canadians can do with their own criminal record.
"A third party cannot request this information on a person's behalf [such as a dating service], but if a person wants to provide their information [record check]
to a dating service as part of a clearance process then that is up to them," according to RCMP Sgt. Greg Cox.
CBC News contacted the major online dating companies active in Canada for response to suggestions they should be working to access Canada's national criminal conviction records system for their Canadian customers.
The debate over background checks
As online dating has mushroomed into a $1-billion industry over the last decade, the debate over the obligation for dating sites to conduct criminal record checks on its subscribers has become increasingly contentious. The issue exploded in the United States in March 2011 after a Los Angeles television producer claimed she had been sexually assaulted by a man she met on Match.com, North America's biggest online dating company. Read more here
Lavalife, an online dating pioneer and subscription site based in Toronto, did not return calls.
Vancouver-based PlentyofFish, founded by Markus Frind, did not respond to several CBC News inquiries. Frind has previously indicated that the company makes approximately $30 million annually from advertising on its website. The company espouses a "buyer beware" philosophy and posts warnings and safety tips for clients on its free site.
eHarmony bills itself as the marriage-minded online dating service and is based in Santa Monica, Calif. General counsel Cary Berger said he is not familiar with the Canadian national criminal records system and could not comment on it.
The company sent CBC News an email statement emphasizing that "eHarmony's efforts are focused on empowering people to use good judgment and to be responsible for their safety on eHarmony, as they would anywhere else. Since there is not a comprehensive database of criminal convictions and many crimes go unreported by the victims, eHarmony does not want to give its members a false sense of security. We make it very clear in several places throughout the site that eHarmony does not conduct criminal background checks on our members."
eHarmony also pointed to the detailed safety tips provided to its members, who are required to view and acknowledge them before they begin communicating with matches. The company also stressed that it closes accounts when it receives credible complaints about users.
Match.com and its affiliates, owned by IAC, is the biggest online player in North America, earning a total of $400 million, primarily through annual subscriptions. Match.com charges a minimum $16.99 per month.
In an email, the company told CBC News: "Match is always reviewing new ways to keep the community safe and is aware of RCMP National Repository of Criminal Records. Unlike the National Sex Offender Registry, against which Match.com screens against in the United States, the RCMP repository is not public information. Therefore, utilizing this information is not currently possible."
It stressed that it reviews every data profile and photo prior to publication on its website, as well as providing online and offline safety tips, and encourages users to "exercise common sense and prudence with people they have just met, whether through an online dating service or any other means."
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