The good-looking stranger gestures toward the bartender, who looks up expectantly. What'll it be? Beer? Martini? Background check?
Probably not the latter, as public records are hard to come by in bars. Besides, finding out that someone's on the national sex offender registry is, generally speaking, a turn-off. For most people on the dating scene, it's drinks first and questions later.
Herb Vest, founder of Dallas-based online dating service True.com, cringes at that thought. For the past two years, Vest has led a legal crusade against criminals who attempt to use his dating site. After suing a California sex offender who signed up for True, Vest says his efforts have finally paid off in a settlement that he says makes his Web site safer for the millions of "unsuspecting women" going online to find love.
"We want to have a wholesome environment for courtship," Vest says. For Vest, that means keeping criminals and married people off his site. Vest says the sex offender, Robert Wells, agreed to stay off True and any other online dating sites in the future as well as pay an unspecified amount of money in damages to True. According to a True press release, Wells was also ordered to complete an unspecified amount of community service. Vest's zealous courthouse pursuit of felons on his dating service is the first action of its kind in the online dating community. While many other dating sites provide safety tips and warnings to users, True goes one step further when it comes to intimidating the criminals and married people Vest believes make online dating unsafe.
Lawyers for Wells refused to comment directly on the settlement, citing a confidentiality agreement they believe True is violating by releasing news of the settlement to the public. Attorney Marc TerBeek says his client, formerly an ophthalmologist in Walnut Creek, California, whose license has been revoked, is being unfairly singled out by True.com in the name of profits. A major part of the True marketing dogma is an emphasis on safety and background checks for all users, and TerBeek believes his client is being exploited.
"This is one of [True.com's] cheap little ways of trying to get exposure," TerBeek says. He believes Vest is using True's suit against Wells as a "marketing ploy." Wells pleaded no contest to a felony count of attempted lewd and lascivious act with a child under 14 years in 2001 after being caught in a sting operation chatting with a fictitious 13-year-old girl.
"They're really not so much interested in the true safety of the people online as much as trying to draw people in," TerBeek says. Vest's tough stance against criminals and married people is prominently displayed on the True homepage in bright blue capital letters: "Warning: Married people and criminals will be prosecuted." As for using Wells as an advertising tool, Vest says "that's absolutely not true."
True filed suit against Wells in November 2005 after a Northern California woman who says she communicated with Wells on another dating site reported him to True. Named "Brooke Benson" in a True press release, the woman has asked to remain anonymous.
In a phone interview, she claimed she met Wells on another dating site, eHarmony.com, in July 2004 and, upon seeing his photo, felt that there was "something about him" she didn't like. She says she e-mailed him long enough to get his last name and then checked his license against the Medical Board of California. It showed his felony conviction and license revocation.
"I was sick to my stomach," says Benson, who contacted eHarmony. Wells' profile was removed from the site and a warning letter was sent out to users who had corresponded with Wells saying he'd been removed and to date him only at their peril. Benson says the letter never said why.
Weeks passed and Benson says she was still unsatisfied with the outcome, so she signed up for Match.com and True.com, looking for Wells. He was on both sites. When she reported Wells to Match, his profile was removed. When she reported Wells to True, she got a phone call from Vest.
"He wouldn't let it go," she says of Vest, who "was like a dog with a bone that someone's trying to take away" while dealing with the Wells issue. True boasts of increased safety on its service because of background checks it conducts on users, but it failed to identify Wells as a sex offender.
Wells fell through the cracks of the True.com background check because the database used by the dating site, Rapsheets.com, isn't exhaustive and doesn't include a nationwide sex offender search. Rapsheets relies on public records supplied by states and counties, so if a particular area doesn't report its records, True has no way of verifying site members' status as criminal or married. And if users provide a false name or place of residence, it can be impossible to know anything at all about their backgrounds.
The county in which Wells committed his crime does not report to Rapsheets, though Wells does appear on the National Sex Offender Public Registry. Rapsheets claims to search 170 million criminal records across the country, but TerBeek says the incomplete nature of the site's database is misleading for True customers who believe they're safer on Vest's dating service.
"If they really wanted to protect people," TerBeek says, "they wouldn't rely on Rapsheets.com. They would do the investigative legwork themselves." It is unclear what the nature of Wells' actions on True were, though court documents claim he never went beyond signing up for the site and never benefited from True's database of online personal ads.
"Our client never had a single date from having his profile on [True]," claim Wells' lawyers in a letter to True's counsel. The letter also accuses True of violating Wells' privacy "by issuing press releases and prominently writing about him on [True.]"
"We are dealing with...the emotions in the case of married people," Vest says, "and consumer safety with respect to criminals." A spokesman for True says they've turned away 2 million users who didn't pass the Rapsheets.com background check. Those offenders who do make it through, however, don't have much to look forward to.
"If they lie about [their criminal or married status] and we find out about it," Vest says, "we turn them into a wire fraud or to the federal authorities." Or, in Wells' case, they get sued. Earlier news reports in California show True's demands as being around $200,000, but True would not release the final figures of the settlement. Vest says the company would donate the money to the Safer Online Dating Alliance, an Austin-based nonprofit organization. Vest has said that his online fight against criminals is highly personal. In 1946, his father was murdered in Gainesville when Vest was just 2 years old.
"I have no sympathy for felons largely because of that," says Vest, who grew up believing his father committed suicide. The crime remains unsolved. Vest, who became a multimillionaire after years in the finance industry with his company H.D. Vest, sold the business to Wells Fargo in 2001 and continues to search for his father's killer. Unsatisfied with retirement and disheartened by the rising divorce rate, Vest started True.com in 2004.
According to a March 2006 Pew report on online dating, about 16 million people have visited online dating sites. True, which claims 10 million registered users, trails Match.com and eHarmony.com. Though Match boasts 15 million and eHarmony claims 12 million users, it is unclear how many users on any of the sites are active, paid subscribers. TerBeek says True is just using Robert Wells to play catch-up.
"[True are] minor players in the Internet dating business," says TerBeek of what he calls an "inconsequential dating site." In early October, True announced a partnership with Friendster.com, the social networking site now eclipsed in popularity by MySpace.com. Vest is also pursuing legislation in several states, including Texas, that would require online dating services to inform users whether background checks are being conducted by the sites themselves. Until then, Vest says he will do what he can to make his own site safer.
"I can't state that a criminal can't get on True.com, but I can state that they'll be very sorry if they do."