New service provides sex offender alerts via e-mail, cell phone
By Kim Curtis
2:37 p.m. May 24, 2005
SAN FRANCISCO – Subscribers can now get "sex offender movement alerts" sent to their cell phones, email and other Internet-enabled devices whenever the sex offenders update their addresses with authorities in California, Texas and Florida.
Houston-based SCAN USA, which already sends information about weather, natural disasters, Amber Alerts and other public safety emergencies, began the offender alerts Tuesday with plans to expand it nationwide, saying users already feel safer.
"A woman I know carries around a yellow piece of paper that shows people who live in her neighborhood. She says it's three months old," explains company spokesman Russ Krauss. "Wouldn't you like to make that current?"
Critics worry that the alarms may provide a false sense of security, since the databases depend on the willingness of sex offenders to check in with police. About 132,000 offenders – a fourth of all such sex offenders nationwide – fail to follow state registration laws, according to an October 2004 survey by the New Jersey-based nonprofit Parents for Megan's Law.
SCAN USA uses software to automatically search the state databases and generate individual alerts each time an offender's home address changes. "This alert is to inform you that a registered sex offender has recently moved into your area," says the alert, which provides a link to the state's sex offender registry where more information is provided.
In California, users can see the ex-con's name, age, exact address, offenses, description, and in most cases, a photograph. Users can request information on sex offenders in as many as five ZIP codes – potentially covering hundreds of offenders.
SCAN USA says it's performing a public service by taking this information – which is now generally available on state Web sites – and giving it wider exposure.
"People are very happy to be proactively informed," Krauss said. "We're getting very positive feedback. The users ... have an increased feeling of safety."
But Laura Ahearn, executive director of Parents for Megan's Law, is outraged that a for-profit company is directing people to information that has been found to be so unreliable. California and other states posted disclaimers on their Web sites after an Associated Press investigation found that thousands of sex offenders fail to register and police rarely enforce the law.
"Why are they doing this? Because they want to benefit financially, not because they want to protect society," Ahearn said. "You can't just be injecting yourself without having some level of responsibility for the information you put out there."
Krauss says it's not his company's responsibility to verify any of the information, or warn subscribers about what's missing from the databases. "This is a garbage-in, garbage-out process. All we can do is use the data that's there."
Some also think it will only feed paranoia, since subscribers must sign up to get updates about every offender in a given zip code, potentially generating hundreds of emails a year.
Jake Goldenflame, a convicted rapist in San Francisco, is an outspoken supporter of Megan's Law, because he thinks its important that sex offenders be held accountable. But he says this service goes too far.
"It bothers me because we're talking about a list of people who obey the law," Goldenflame said. "If you're the average homeowner getting an email alert that John Q. Creep has moved in down the block, it's alarmist. It foments a very bad atmosphere."
All states require certain sex offenders to register and all states make at least some of that information available to the public, but requirements vary dramatically from state-to-state. For example, Californians don't have access to any information about the more than 20,000 ex-cons who committed lower-level sex offenses.
Even so, San Francisco resident and former police sketch artist Amy Nelder, 33, signed up for the new service. She calls herself "super crime conscious."
"I think it's about awareness," she said. "Sometimes people think ignorance is bliss, but in this case, it isn't. I don't think it creates a false sense of security, it creates a true sense of awareness."