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Q: I’m a female survivor of domestic violence who’s starting to date again—I don’t want to live in fear anymore. At the same time, I met this new guy on a dating app and I want to make sure he doesn’t have anything shady in his past. I feel like I should do a background check on my potential new boyfriend but some of my friends say I’m overreacting and that if he found out I did that, he would be creeped out. What say you? — Anne
I say your friends should be more concerned about your safety than a stranger’s level of comfort. Have they not watched The Tinder Swindler on Netflix? That alone is enough to make a solid case for background checking a potential partner before getting too involved.
There’s nothing overreactive about wanting to prioritize your safety. Many women have been raised with this culturally ingrained belief that questioning men is somehow impolite, and that we need to be passive and quiet and prioritize others’ feelings over our own. It prevents women from drawing healthy boundaries and from extraditing themselves from situations that make them feel uncomfortable.
Look at it this way—if you told someone you were a survivor of domestic violence and that a background check would make you feel safer going out alone with this person, and that person blew you off or got defensive, wouldn’t that be the instant confirmation you needed to not proceed with the date?
Kathryn Kosmides, founder and CEO of Garbo, founded a new kind of background check company in 2018 after her own experience as a multi-time survivor of gender-based violence. She was frustrated by her experience in the justice system and after finding it incredibly difficult and expensive for people to know if someone had a violent past.
But when she started looking into what background check services were available, she realized the ones in operation were, as she called them, “stalking-as-a-service.” They were doing less to protect the person searching and more to assist in stalking, revealing personal information like a home address and phone numbers.
“You don’t know if someone has a history of violent or harmful behavior,” says Kosmides. So she created Garbo, which only looks for those things. Wouldn’t you know it, Match Group, who owns Tinder, Match.com, OkCupid, OurTime and many other dating services, has partnered with Garbo to provide these harm-focused background checks as a service for its users.
In other words, Anne, your gut feeling to do this before meeting up for happy hour was spot-on.
However, Kosmides says you don’t need to tell your date that you’re checking up on them. In fact, it’s safer if you don’t.
“If they are a violent individual that response could be really bad,” she says. She also acknowledges that some people feel uncomfortable about background checking their date.
“We try to normalize that. It’s a very important step.”
Here’s what a criminal background check will likely reveal, in most cases (keep in mind this can vary depending on what state the crime happened in):
- Criminal convictions
- Arrest charges
- Sex offender registry records
And here’s what the background check typically won’t show:
- Minor infractions (violations that result in fines or less than five days of jail time like traffic tickets or disturbing the peace)
- Misdemeanors that the person has expunged from their record (they can do so by petitioning a court)
- Police reports that don’t result in charges pressed
- Orders of protection (depending on the state—some states will show this on background checks)
Most domestic violence charges are misdemeanors, and often if the abuser completes the required actions the court orders, their record can be expunged.
For Garbo specifically, Kosmides explains she created the company to help protect individuals but to not amplify offenses usually incurred disproportionately by individuals of color, individuals for whom the criminal justice system often unequally targets. This means you won’t see offenses like loitering, sex work, immigration violations or drug abuse arrests in their checks. A complete list can be found here.
Of course, a background check is not a fail-safe. Just because a person is dangerous doesn’t mean they’ve been arrested for it. Abuse is not always physical and a police report is rarely the outcome for cases of psychological or verbal abuse. It’s always important to consider a background check one step of several to stay safe when online dating.
“We're very transparent about the fact that background checks should be viewed as a tool in the tool belt,” says Kosmides. “They are not perfect and the public record system has many flaws.”
What happens if you run the background check and a red flag pops up? On Garbo, you can be directly connected to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which is a great place to start if you’re experiencing abuse or have any questions about dating violence. (You can also find a domestic violence advocate at a shelter in your area, and you don’t need to be experiencing abuse to call and simply ask questions.) Kosmides warns, however, to not confront the person for whom you’re background checking. Not only can it be dangerous, but the flip side is, they’ll likely offer up a false version of events.
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Most importantly, listen to your gut. If the background check presents something that makes you feel uncomfortable, your safety isn’t worth risking “just to see” if this person is as dangerous as it appears.
If you’ve already begun seeing this person and are noticing any other red flags—love-bombing, a rapid acceleration of the relationship, controlling behavior, jealousy, a quick temper, attempts to isolate you from friends and family—it’s all the more reason to reach out to an advocate and formulate a safe way to end things.
Ask Amanda is meant to offer helpful resources and information about domestic violence. If in crisis, please reach out to your nearest domestic violence shelter for the guidance of a trained advocate.
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