With federal agencies showing little interest, several states are taking the lead in tightening oversight of the online dating industry, considering new laws that would, among other things, mandate criminal background checks on all those looking for love on the Internet.
New York is so far the only state that has a law regulating online dating sites, but six other states have introduced similar legislation mainly in the last year, according to the National Law Journal. They are California, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia and Texas.
Lawmakers say the industry isn't doing enough to police itself and is putting vulnerable people at risk of meeting up with predators.
Some states want to make criminal background checks mandatory while others want sites to alert surfers upfront that background checks on potential dates have not been done.
Regulating Internet sites is easier said than done, though. They operate in Interstate commerce and many of their operations are protected by First Amendment considerations.
Attorneys for the services complain that it would be nearly impossible for a worldwide Web site to comply with a patchwork of state laws.
Attorney Michael Marin of Houston is currently defending Myspace.com in a Texas case involving a 14-year-old girl who claims she was sexually assaulted by someone she met on Myspace, and is seeking to hold the Web site liable.
Last year he successfully defended an online dating company that was sued by a user who allegedly was raped by someone she met on the company's Web site. Marin got the case dismissed, citing the 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA), which grants broad immunity to Internet companies for content provided by third parties.
Marin said consumers must take some responsibility for their safety.
"If you're a consumer and you meet someone online you can go and pay for a background check," he said. State laws requiring such checks would "create a false sense of security," he added.
But Marin said such checks are often incomplete and are no guarantee of safety.
A few sites, including TheBadge.org and True, have recently started offering background checks to their paid members.
Sites like Zabasearch.com offers background checks that can sometimes include criminal records. But, like all services that rely on public records, it cannot guarantee the accuracy of its results.