Although online dating has come a long way and has lost much of its stigma, with 1 in 5 adults using the popular dating services, there are still many unaddressed vulnerabilities that could lead to serious legal problems.
One concern stems from users hiding behind the online barrier, making it difficult to really know if what you see is what you will truly get when dating online.
For example, a 19-year-old teen spent nearly 80 days in jail and is on the Michigan and Indiana sex-offender registries due to a misdemeanor charge of criminal sexual conduct after meeting with a 14-year-old girl who lied about her age on a dating app called Hot Or Not.
Zach Anderson, who believed the underaged girl he met was 17, spent 73 days in jail despite the fact that the girl’s parents never wanted to press charges and requested leniency for Anderson. The girl and her parents appeared in court where she admitted to lying about her age and wrote an apology letter to the Anderson family for her actions.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you my age. It kills me every day, knowing you are going through hell and I’m not. I want to be in trouble and not you,” she said.
Anderson’s attorney argued that Anderson was a victim of today’s online dating culture, which he characterized as a deceitful place that makes it nearly impossible to know someone’s true age. However, Berrien County District Judge Dennis Wiley disagreed.
“You went online, to use a fisherman’s expression, trolling for women to meet and have sex with,” he told Anderson. “That seems to be part of our culture now — meet, hook up, have sex, sayonara. Totally inappropriate behavior. There is no excuse for this whatsoever.”
Given a 90-day jail sentence, five years probation and 25 years on both Michigan and Indiana’s sex offender registries, Anderson will have to adjust to life avoiding schools, malls and other public places as well as learning to cope with the fact that landlords and employers may not accept him because of his conviction.
Online Dating Rights
If you were in the same situation as Anderson, what are your rights when it comes to online dating?
Even if the girl in Anderson’s case admitted to lying about her age and insisted the incident was consensual, current sex offender laws do not consider this an accepted defense.
Current laws allow Anderson’s name, home and work addresses to be made public, but his charges will not be specified. So, when a future employer looks at the registry, he or she will not see a difference between Anderson and someone with more severe convictions.
What to Do
The best way to avoid getting arrested because of an online dating scandal is to:
- Choose a legitimate online dating site. There are certain sites that perform background checks to limit who gets to join their service.
- Familiarize yourself with the terms of service. Make sure you know what information about yourself is being shared online and what specific policies the site has. Chances are, the online dating service will state that you are responsible for your actions and will not take the blame for your arrest.
- Exercise caution. If you have doubts about a person you met online, trust your instinct and avoid what could be a bad situation.