The biggest bummer about looking for love online — you don't really know who is sitting there on the other end of the internet connection. "If you think about it, Match.com or any of those, the only information you have on there is what people represent as being the truth," says Bob Birdsong, a U.S. Naval Academy grad and former Florida Highway patrolman who now owns businesses in South Florida. "They lie about their age, they lie about their background, they lie about their marital status, they do fake pictures."
Birdsong knows personally — after giving online dating a shot, he ended up in a relationship with a woman that ended so badly he needed to get a lawyer involved to get the lady to back off. "Had I known her background, this wouldn't have happened to me," Birdsong says. "There's a lot of people out there, if they don't have a story like that, they know someone that does."
That personal drama is the jumping-off point for ValiDate, a new online dating service Birdsong and two partners just cut the ribbon on November 1. The service features a first for online dating: All participants have been verified with a background check, a precaution that's too costly for all the other online dating giants, creating a serious blindspot in safety.
The idea solidified two years ago. Birdsong was chatting with two licensed private investigators — Todd Moss and Guy Laetta — at the gym where they all worked out. The gumshoes told the former law enforcement pro that they were getting more and more requests from clients to investigate romantic partners from online sites. The three men saw an opening for a dating option that could provide professional security.
The development process was "long and money-intensive," Birdsong says. Besides developing the right software, the three partners also had to convince background-check companies to work with the new service. "Most won't do that; most only work with law enforcement and investigators." The developers also polled single friends about what they'd like to see on a service and signed up for all the major dating sites, seeing what works and what doesn't.
The end product went live at the beginning of the month. Daters who sign up fill in information about themselves with the company — name, birthdate. Customers then sign authorizations allowing the company to run their data through the background-check companies' databases to confirm you really are who you say you are. The service has also teamed with the Child Rescue Coalition to see if the names correspond with known pedophiles. "We found out that pedophiles join these websites looking for single moms, and that's how they meet the kids," Birdsong says.
ValiDate also has software that can double-check whether your IP address is actually linked to the location where you say you are. Overall, the background check is pass/fail — if you pass, the gates open and you're welcome to mingle with the other verified singles. The site is clear about what can block your validation:
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1.One violent felony arrest or any two non-violent felony arrests.
2. Two or more DUI’s
3. Any violent misdemeanor conviction or any two non-violent misdemeanor convictions.
4. Misrepresenting your marital status. You may be legally separated if it is noted on your profile under “Relationship Status”. We may ask for proof of legal separation.
5. Using fake, old or altered photos that are not representative of what you look like now.
6. Arrests of any kind for fraud, domestic violence, child abuse or sexual battery.
7. Misrepresenting your age.
8. Being associated with child abuse or child pornography web activity.
The service also requires repeated background checks every six months to make sure the dating pool remains squeaky clean.
On the first day of business, Birdsong says hundreds of people signed up. Right now, the company is giving out free three-month memberships to build up the dating pool, what would usually cost $89.
"We're just launching in South Florida — Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach — at this time," Birdsong says. "By the first of the year, we'll be all throughout the state of Florida. And then by early 2016, we'll be nationwide."