Sex-Offender Apps: Use With Caution

It's easy to locate sex offenders in any neighborhood. But will such knowledge make buyers safer? Probably not.

June 1, 2010

A growing number of Web sites and mobile applications make it exceedingly simple to find out how many registered sex offenders live in a given neighborhood. Many of the Web sites came as result of Megan’s Law, which went into effect in 1996, requiring states to make information on registered sex offenders available to the public. 

Usually, the online tools work like this: You enter an address, city name, or ZIP code, and in seconds you see a map of the area with small dots representing where sex offenders live. You can usually pin down their exact location, see their photo, and possibly find out what offense landed them on the registry.

Web sites such as Family Watchdog and the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Sex Offender Public Website are free, while mobile apps can cost a few dollars—the popular Offender Locator app from ThinAir Wireless in Houston can be downloaded for $1.99 on the iPhone. (A slimmed-down version is free.)

But just because the technology is widely available doesn’t mean it’s always worth using. Although certain buyers see great value in the information these tools provide, sex-offender registries are controversial by nature and some say they can generate more confusion than clarity.

For example, it would be far too simplistic to interpret a search that shows very few dots to mean an area is safe from sex offenders. On the other hand, seeing lots of dots can provide needless alarm, says Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry (Jossey-Bass, 2009).

Round-the-clock media coverage of high-profile abductions and murders has contributed to a general sense that society has run amok, when in fact violent crime rates in most areas are generally lower now than they’ve been since the 1970s, she says.

Just Feeding Our Fears?

Skenazy notes that the number of people registered as sex offenders has been exploding for 15 years—and not because of the escalation of high-risk perpetrators.

While there are still plenty of creepy criminals on state registries, "the main reason that this list has grown so large is that we’ve dumbed down the notion of what constitutes a sex offender," she says. "A person can wind up on the registry for urinating in public, or for visiting a prostitute. Or for streaking; in 32 states, that stupid prank can land a fool on the list."

Perhaps the most problematic group of "sex offenders" is teens, Skenazy adds. Plenty of teen boys end up on the list for having sex with their younger girlfriends—and getting caught. Sex with a minor can be classified as a crime even if it’s consensual.

In Texas alone, there are 4,000 registrants who landed on the list as juveniles. And an assessment of registered sex offenders in Georgia found that less than 1 percent were "predators," defined as people who are driven by compulsion to commit sex crimes.

Ironically, while states keep adding to the registries to "keep children safe," they’d likely be safer if registries were smaller and more meaningful, Skenazy says.

Skenazy also argues that sex-offender registries and mobile apps contribute to an irrational fear of "stranger danger," when in fact nearly 90 percent of all crimes against children are committed by a family member or other people they know, according to David Finkelhor, who directs the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

Respond to Buyer Concerns

So what’s a real estate practitioner’s responsibility when buyers ask if sex offenders live in the area? While the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® has no formal policy about the use of sex offender registries as part of a home search, it has stated that enforcement agencies are the best source of information on sex offenders.

Even though real estate professionals share the public’s concern about where convicted sex offenders are living, NAR believes that it’s not the practitioner’s responsibility to notify home buyers when offenders live in their neighborhood.

That said, it’s imperative that practitioners comply with their state’s disclosure laws, says NAR Associate General Counsel Ralph Holmen.

In many states, including California, sellers must disclose facts that might materially affect the value or desirability of the property. And if it’s public knowledge that a sex offender lives nearby, that could make a property less marketable. Thus, disclosure would be necessary.

Know Your Sources

If buyers express general concerns about potential offenders in a neighborhood, it’s appropriate for practitioners to refer clients to state registries run by enforcement agencies, Holmen says.

That’s also the approach favored by Jim Lee, ABR®, CRS®, a sales associate with Realty Executives Associates in Knoxville, Tenn.

Just as with other crime data, Lee says it’s better to be "the source of the source"—directing buyers to online resources so they can do their own research.

"I don’t want the liability that comes with looking up sensitive information for buyers," he says. "What if the Web site you’re using is wrong?" States each have their own methods of keeping their registries updated, so it’s always possible that the most current information won’t show up in an online search.

With an issue that’s so complex, it’s best to let buyers make their own judgment call.

It may be tempting to download a snazzy app that purports to make you more knowledgeable about a neighborhood’s potential risks, Skenazy says. But the reality is that such apps stir up a lot more heat than light.

Wendy Cole

Wendy Cole is the former managing editor of REALTOR® Magazine.