Anyone visiting Match.com knows the mantra — one in five relationships starts online. Last year, more than 80 million people used at least one Internet dating service. Does that equate to 40 million happy couples? Not exactly.

With traditional dating, one might expect to kiss a few frogs before meeting a prince. Now, with the onslaught of online dating, one can expect to text a few toads. And maybe perform a background check or two.

Virtually any conversation about online dating eventually turns to the subject of safety. With the excitement of broadening our horizons comes the flip side of the coin — fear of the unknown. New territory brings new opportunities and new dangers.

Anything new can be scary. And scary new things, we know, are newsworthy. So we tend to hear the frightening stories the most. Internet dating has been popular and successful for quite a while, with more people buying memberships to online sites each year. But as with any trend where the rules are still getting worked out, there are pitfalls.

A Los Angeles woman recently filed a lawsuit against a popular Internet dating site. Carole Markin, a Match.com member, says she was sexually assaulted by Alan Wurtzel, a man she had met on the site. She maintains that after their second date, Wurtzel followed her home and attacked her. After the attack, she said she was stunned to discover (via a criminal background check) that he had several previous convictions for sexual battery.

In her suit, Markin did not seek financial damages, but rather an injunction barring Match.com from adding new members until it agreed to screen its membership for sexual predators. She saw this as an opportunity to prevent other women from suffering a fate similar to hers.

Markin spoke with KPCC (Southern California Public Radio). “People go on it with a certain presumption that it’s going to be a certain amount of safety,” said Markin. “You know that people, when they go on dating websites, they may lie about their age, they may lie about their weight, but you don’t expect them to lie about something like that.”

She had followed the basic rules of online dating — meeting in a public place, taking her own transportation and not allowing a stranger to know where she lived. Yet she was still assaulted. In her opinion, Match.com was at least partially responsible for her trauma.

A few days after she filed the lawsuit, Match.com agreed to screen its database for sexual predators. Match.com refused, however, to assume any liability. In a statement to CNN, Mandy Ginsberg, president of Match.com, said, “Improved technology and an improved database now enable a sufficient degree of accuracy to move forward” with the initiative that it had previously discounted because of the background checks’ “historical unreliability.”

2Another dating site, eHarmony, publicizes that it already cross-checks its users with public sex offender lists, and that this policy “has allowed us to keep many known registered sex offenders off of our service.” But eHarmony stops short of assuming any liability as well. It recognizes that the screenings may not be enough to keep the site predator-free, and encourages members to “exercise good judgment.”

Members may hope that eHarmony’s cross-checks and screenings are a bit more detailed than its validation process called “RelyID.” For a few extra dollars, members can “self-validate” their profiles by answering a few specific questions. When the member is “validated,” a small badge pops up on his or her profile, letting other members know that this member “is who he says he is.”

While this makes for tidy marketing sound bites, in reality, online dating is just like traditional dating — in other words, buyer beware. If Carole Markin had met a man at a nightclub, she wouldn’t have assumed the bar had checked his credentials for her. Certain levels of safety, such as adequate lighting, secure parking, might be expected.

Conversely, one does not typically expect a nightclub, or any club, to guarantee the quality of its clientele. How can this be expected of dating sites?

Does Markin have a point that online dating sites need to take ownership of their members’ security? While it makes business sense for online matchmaking sites to screen out sexual predators, is it their responsibility to protect their members? If so, how?

The task appears daunting. Since little information is needed to secure a Match.com account, it will be interesting to see how effective this screening actually is. If a site member is not asked for personal identifiers such as a social security number, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to effectively track that person. Facial recognition software is expensive and often ineffective, especially when a member does not even submit a legitimate photo. This falls into the dim pit of a paradox, where honest people don’t need background checks and dishonest ones can beat them. Performing successful security checks on 99 percent of members is useless if that last 1 percent is going to beat the system and wreak havoc.

In Markin’s case, her alleged attacker has been charged with two counts of felony sexual assault, and the Los Angeles Police Department is looking into the possibility of more victims. A quick check of the National Sex Offender Public Website did not list an Alan Wurtzel, or any Wurtzel, for that matter.

Howard Wise works in the Computer Fraud Division of the Ventura County District Attorney’s office. “The system is built to find a balance between privacy and safety,” he explains. “The sex offender registry, or ‘Megan’s Law,’ does not publicly list all sex offenders, only those thought to be most dangerous. Not all offenders are on the public registry. Other offenders are tracked, and are required to be registered for their entire lives, but their information is known only to law enforcement.” Ironically, the background check that Markin so vigorously wanted Match.com to implement would not have warned her about her alleged assailant.

3To further muddy the waters, Markin, a film and television producer, has written two books – Bad Dates: Celebrities and Other Talented Types Reveal Their Worst Nights Out, and its sequel, More Bad Dates: And Other Tales From the Dark Side of Love. She was also recently listed as the creator of a new reality series whose topic, as of press time, has not yet been revealed.  

While online dating sites attempt to address the security issue, we might apply the same rules to traditional ways of meeting people. When was the last time a nightclub or a place of worship screened for sex offenders? When someone is assaulted, how quickly should we blame the venue?

Some sites extol their extensive vetting process in order to attract clients who are concerned about the dangers of Internet dating. That may lull users into a false sense of security, and predators take advantage of that feeling. On May 24, KSTP Eyewitness News of St. Paul, Minn., reported that a convicted sex offender had been using public computers in local libraries to access online dating sites. Kenneth Bronk had a history of hurting people he met online and was listed as a predatory offender. When discovered by the police, he cut off his monitoring device, boarded a bus and headed to another library to continue accessing dating sites. He was later apprehended when he returned to a library to erase his browsing history. His release date is currently listed as April 26, 2012.

On June 7, seven young Santa Paula men, ages 17-20, were charged in connection to the alleged gang rapes of two teenage girl — the girls had been lured to an area home due in part to a social networking site.

Can this issue be approached another way — by preventing unsavory figures from using dating sites, or even social networking sites? This may tread on their First Amendment rights. Last year, the state of New Mexico tried to ban known sex offenders from using libraries but lost the case in court.

In general, the World Wide Web is just that — open to all — and predators will use it as they would any other tool to gain access to victims. They rely on the false sense of security people get when they assume they are in a sanctuary, whether it is online, at a club, or anywhere. One can’t expect to be protected by an intensive background search at a dating website any more than one would expect to be at a nightclub, a church or a library.

There are rules that can be applied to sex offenders to prevent them from accessing inappropriate sites. According to Wise, a technology restriction can be made part of probation or parole terms. This would limit an offender’s Internet access to certain types of sites, or even texting anything deemed inappropriate. Law enforcement could have “search terms,” or the right to immediate search, to ascertain whether such restrictions had been violated.

In addition, the California Senate is now considering Senate Bill 57, which would require all registered sex offenders to disclose their online social network addresses as part of their annual registration requirement. Introduced by Sen. Sharon Runner (R-Antelope Valley), SB 57 adds a data field to the sex offender registration form already required by law enforcement. While this measure does not deny anyone access to social networking websites, it does give sex offenders reason to think before engaging in predatory practices on the Internet.

Fraud is everywhere. Predators are adept at fitting into their surroundings, whether it’s a website, club, library or any sort of social organization. What sets online dating apart is that people create emotional attachments there to people they have never met. They may think they know them, but all they truly know is information carefully fed to them via e-mail, texting, video chat and phone calls. A bond can form before they meet, so that by the time they do meet, a level of trust has been established that may not necessarily be deserved. The heart overrules the brain, and mistakes are made.

A classic scam infiltrating dating sites is when a victim meets a seemingly nice person online. The two e-mail, chat, find they have mutual interests, and form a romantic bond. Then the supposedly nice person is suddenly stuck overseas and needs money right away to get home, or to come see the victim, or some other cruel and fraudulent reason. By this time, an emotional attachment has been made with the victim and love, or a close facsimile, becomes terribly blind. The victim ends up poorer but, one hopes, wiser.

This maneuver is not restricted to online romance, but is simply a new twist on an old game. Ask anyone who has ever lent money to a supposed sweetheart, only to watch the money and love disappear on the next bus out of town.

Online dating is different but the same — a new method to the madness, but with the same old rules, the same old hopes and dreams. No matter where you expect to meet the love of your life, it’s tough to keep one foot planted firmly on the ground while you float on Cloud Nine. Part of the mystique of romance is the heady, giddy feeling of mutual attraction and the excitement of a potential future together. The other part is common sense and cold reality — not as fun, but a necessary task, regardless of where you meet your match.

While Internet dating gives you more fish in a bigger pond, it also increases your chances of meeting a shark.

Regardless of the method of meeting, the scary stories get our attention. That said, they shouldn’t keep us from our pursuit of happiness. We simply need to take responsibility for our own choices, to be aware of the pitfalls as well as the pleasures.

Millions of people continue to use online dating sites successfully, and the numbers are increasing. While eHarmony boasts an average of 90 member weddings a day, Match.com says it has even more. Most of the good news may not be newsworthy, but it’s certainly noteworthy, especially if your goal is not to be on the evening news, but to meet the love of your life. Perhaps relationships are like housework — only creating a stir when something isn’t done properly. When they’re good, they simply happen, like a happy ending.   

eitman@mindspring.com