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Dating sites pressed over safety warnings

Sex offenders cited in state legislation

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HARTFORD, Conn. | Something just didn't seem right when Ilana Angel met her Internet date at a bar. He furtively looked around the room and immediately suggested they go someplace else in his car, leaving hers behind at the bar.

Aware of the risks of that come with looking for love online, Miss Angel thought better of the suggestion and said no.

"People are shady," said Miss Angel, who writes a blog in Los Angeles about dating and being over 40. "You just have to be aware, and you have to be careful."

Amid accounts of sex offenders using matchmaking sites to find victims, lawmakers in several states are trying to pass legislation to help make online daters more aware of the potential pitfalls of the process. Bills are pending this year in Connecticut and Texas to provide users with more information to protect themselves.

Connecticut's bill, mirroring a law in New York, requires Internet dating services to provide a safety-awareness notice during registration that offers advice, such as never including your last name, email address, place of work, phone numbers or identifying information in an Internet profile. Similar laws are already on the books in Florida and New Jersey.

A Pennsylvania man, Jeffrey Marsalis, was sentenced in 2009 to life in prison in Idaho for sexually assaulting a woman in 2005. He was already serving a 21-year sentence in Pennsylvania for two other sexual-assault convictions. Authorities in Philadelphia portrayed Marsalis as a smooth talker who would meet women on the popular dating website Match.com, telling them he was an astronaut, doctor or a spy and then slip something into their drinks to incapacitate them.

"I've heard a lot of stories, not only people who had their physical safety endangered, but also financial safety," said Connecticut state Rep. Mae Flexer, a Democrat who authored the bill. "I've heard from a number of people who, unfortunately, met someone online, they gave them too much information and were damaged financially as well."

The Texas legislation requires online dating services to clearly disclose to customers whether they conduct criminal-background checks on each member before allowing them to contact other members on the site. The same bill requires the sites to remind customers that background checks are not a perfect safety solution and that they can be circumvented by criminals.

New York lawmakers are considering a similar bill that would supplement last year's law. It would also require the companies to clearly notify users whether they conduct criminal-background screenings.

Match.com said that it will begin screening its users against the national sex-offender registry. The announcement came after a California woman sued the site, saying she was sexually assaulted while on a second date by a man she met on Match.com. She has claimed the assault could have been prevented with a proper background check.

A spokesman for Match.com said the company was already considering screening its users before the woman's lawsuit was filed. He said the timing of the decision was accelerated by the attention brought by the suit.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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