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App Scans Friends for Sex Offenders
Friend Verifier

NEW YORK — Have you ever been wary of making social connections online?

An app is aiming to make social networks safer by allowing users to scan their friends and friend requests for registered sex offenders. Friend Verifier, a Facebook app, compares a user's friends to the National Sex Offender Registry and lists any matches.

"When you're swiping left and swiping right on Tinder and meeting someone through that, you don't know anything about them," creator Joe Penora said. "Especially for women who are doing online dating or even teens who are adding people on Facebook, you should know who you are letting into your circle and into your social life. They may actually come back and cause you harm."

Convicted sex offenders are prohibited from creating a Facebook account in the site's terms of use, but there is no real mechanism to prevent people from signing up. If Facebook users spot a convicted sex offender using the site, they can report them to the social network to have the account disabled.

Friend Verifier was designed to find those registered sex offenders who are using Facebook without being noticed. Seventy-five percent of the app's users are women. The main user base is young women and parents, according to Penora.

"The fact that we have so many people going on Facebook now — it's really exploding the size of our social circle," he said. "A lot of these people really have no idea who (friends) are and it's best to verify that they are who they say they are and there isn't any risk."

The app color codes the results of each scan that can be performed for free by going to the app's Facebook page. If a friend comes back as yellow, then only the name matches a name on the national sex offender database. If the result is orange, then both the name and location of a friend matches the database. A red result means the name, location and date of birth of someone in the database matches a Facebook friend.

Users then have the option to click on any of the color-coded results to see more information, including a picture of the registered sex offender, so they can compare it to what they know about their friend. All of the information about registered sex offenders comes from public records, and Penora said the app doesn't harvest any information from the people performing the scans.

Friend Verifier was launched in March 2012, but has recently been gaining popularity and was used to perform more than five million scans in May alone. Penora said the company has been contacted by users who wanted to thank them because they received random requests from people with orange matches.

One of the most surprising results was when a woman contacted the company asking for her husband to be taken off the list because she said it was inaccurate, according to Penora.

"I looked it up and her husband actually ended up being a sex offender and she had no idea," he said. "It happened about 10 years before they got married."

Penora said he first had the idea to create the app when MySpace was popular and he was graduating college. When his girlfriend complained about random men trying to add her on the site, he joked that he would make a "creepy guy filter."

He ended up going into a career in marketing, but decided to start his own business when the company he worked for closed during the economic downturn. Around the same time, he read an article about a woman who was assaulted by a sex offender she met through

"I thought, what if I take this joke I had in college and see if there is a market for it where I can actually help someone and keep them safe from, for a lack of a better word, creepy guys?" he said.

So far, the site has performed scans for more than 7 million people, according to Penora.