Sex offenders on dating sites: It's not always possible to swipe left

Commentary: But there are steps you can take to stay safer when searching for love online.

Erin Carson Former Senior Writer
Erin Carson covered internet culture, online dating and the weird ways tech and science are changing your life.
Expertise Erin has been a tech reporter for almost 10 years. Her reporting has taken her from the Johnson Space Center to San Diego Comic-Con's famous Hall H. Credentials
  • She has a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.
Erin Carson
4 min read

A little sleuthing can help you stay safe online. 

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After a couple days chatting with a brown-haired, square-jawed guy on a dating app, I did what I always do when a match seems mildly promising: I Googled him. 

Based on personal details he'd mentioned, I found his full name and, ultimately, a local news article chronicling his second arrest -- this one after being found drunk, naked and disoriented in a public area one night two years back. 

In the immortal words of rapper Eminem, back to the lab again, yo. 


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As can sometimes be the case when meeting people through dating apps and sites, you don't always know what you're getting into. You can see photos, bios and answers to quirky personality questions, but that's about it.

In a report out this week, Columbia Journalism Investigations and ProPublica charged that Match Group, the company that owns popular dating apps like Tinder and OkCupid, doesn't perform background checks on users. The company acknowledged that registered sex offenders have access to those platforms, and the report told told of several women who met them online and were raped by them. Match Group's flagship service, Match.com, does perform background checks. 

Match Group strongly refuted the report in a statement, saying it's "inaccurate, disingenuous and mischaracterizes Match Group safety policies as well as our conversations with ProPublica." 

The company said it spends millions of dollars annually to prevent, monitor and remove "bad actors," including registered sex offenders, from its apps. "As technology evolves, we will continue to aggressively deploy new tools to eradicate bad actors, including users of our free products like Tinder, Plenty of Fish and OkCupid where we are not able to obtain sufficient and reliable information to make meaningful background checks possible," Match Group said. 

Still, daters do tell stories of being harmed by potential partners they met online, and these accounts can be blood-curdling -- a worst-case scenario when you're hopefully flipping through endless photos of smiling people on vacation, hanging out with friends and holding up large, lifeless fish. It's also an unfortunate reminder you can't always rely on your favorite services to have your back. 

Online dating apps aren't the only services whose users have reported sexual assault. On Wednesday, 55 women filed or joined lawsuits against ride-sharing platform Lyft, alleging the company hasn't done enough to protect them from sexual assault by drivers. 

In any case, there are steps you can take to mitigate your risk when looking for love online. 

Before getting into strategy, there are a few things to note. First, there's no fault to be leveled at anyone who didn't think to check the sex offender registry before grabbing drinks. Second, not everyone with a criminal record deserves a stain forever -- people and the lives they lead are messy and complicated. However, you are allowed to make decisions about what you're willing to deal with or avoid. Third, not all corners of the internet are filled with predators waiting to strike. If you meet someone at a bar, you should probably check them out, too. Fourth, yeah, dating apps should probably do a better job with their users' safety. Is it an easy fix? Probably not. Is it impossible? Also, probably not. 

So, that leaves you, armed with an internet connection, digging deeper into your potential date's background.

It's worth doing a simple Google search, checking local media websites and even scanning a prospective date's social media for any red flags. I've found everything from arrest records to dudes who were clearly still married, and I'm glad I figured that out before investing much more than a few lines of banter. 

If you manage to suss out a last name (you might need to get creative with your Googling) and feel the need to dig deeper, there's the National Sex Offender Public Website, where you can search by name and location. The FBI also has corralled individual state sex offender registries as well. 

CNET also has a guide to not getting catfished, offering such tips as setting up a phone call in advance of a date, doing a reverse image search of profile photos to make sure they weren't stolen from someone else, and keeping an eye out for other warning signs, like requests for money or an unwillingness to meet in person. 

And as for going on a date -- always tell someone where you're going and with whom. For me, I've got a group chat of close friends who will text me to make sure I'm OK and check that I got home safe. 

I've talked with folks who feel Googling a person before going out with them is unfair and  deprives someone the opportunity to tell their own story. There's some merit to that argument, but I would counter that safety trumps all else. Plus, the idea is to establish a baseline comfort that the person you're talking to isn't a danger, not to dig up conversational ammo so you can pretend to like the same bands. 

In any case, trust your gut. If something feels off, there's a good chance it is. 

CNET's Love Syncs is an advice column focusing on online dating. If you've got a question about finding love via app, send it to erin.carson@cbsinteractive.com for consideration. 

Originally published Dec. 4. 
Update, Dec. 5, 2:12 p.m. PT: Adds additional context on other services.