Apps, sites sexual predators use to target kids: Updated for 2018
Not too long ago, the image of a child predator was a simple one. They might hang around parks and playgrounds, lurking and planning.
But over the past several years, they’ve been trolling for victims online.
“We’ve seen an increase not only in arrests but investigations based on complaints,” New Jersey State Police Lt. John Pizzuro, commander of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, said.
Last, year the task force arrested 219 people on an assortment of charges. This year Pizzuro estimates 265 individuals will be taken into custody and charged.
“Today we’re giving children the ability access online mediums at a very early age, he said. "Also at the same time predators are accessing that, so that’s why numbers keep increasing.”
Pizzuro said another reason for the expanding cyber predator problem is children of all ages are spending an increasing amount of time online with people they may not really know.
“What happens is that if I don’t have enough likes or enough views and someone is now paying attention to me, I’m more susceptible to listening to that person because that person is complementing me,” Pizzuro said. "Because their self-esteem is lower today and everything is online and we don’t have the real relationships, it’s very easy for someone to come in and compliment someone.”
New Jersey State Police detective Joe Santamaria, who works in the ICAC Task Force, said kids today are driven by those likes and by their followers, "whoever shows an interest in them, sure, and they open up."
He said predators have become skilled at discovering which social media and gaming sites are being used by kids, especially sites that allow users to remain anonymous.
Yubo, for instance, promotes itself as a way for teens to make friends. It's frequently called -- often derisively -- a "Tinder for teens" by review sites and online safety guides, since aspects of its interface work similarly to the popular dating app.
But, Santamaria said, "there’s no verification system in place, so if a pedophile wants to come in, a predator wants to come in, he can now put his age in anywhere from 13 to 17 and he has access to 13- to 17-year-old kids.”
Yubo, in its online materials, explicitly says it's not a dating app. In a message sent to New Jersey 101.5, it rejected the "Tinder for teens" label, saying it could drive teens to see it as such. Yubo said it employs safeguards including human moderation and artificial intelligence screening to "detect fake profiles and suspicious accounts and users that may have ill-intent towards young users." Such profiles are taken down quickly, the service said. It further uses technology to monitor live chat streams for nudity and partial nudity, and warns users to get fully dressed before entirely dropping their feeds, Yubo said.
Pizzuro said after predators make contact with children through any platform, they can often be methodical and patient.
“They’re going to try and groom you, for example they’re going to try to gain your trust, and a lot of times predators will spend months and even in some cases years trying to gain children’s trust," he said.
Santamaria said some apps potentially dangerous for children include: Kik, SnapChat, WhatsApp, Tik Tok (formerly Musical.ly), Houseparty, Viber, Amino, Tumblr, Skout and Chatous.
He said dating or no-strings-attached sex apps include: Yubo (though the company disputes that description and doesn't market itself as such), Tinder, Grindr, Down Dating and MeetMe.
Santamaria listed the following as potentially dangerous to children and allowing anonymous chat via text and/or video: Omegle.com, Chatroulette.com, Chat-Avenue.com, ChatStep.com, Chatrandom.com, Tinychat.com and Tohla.com.
Santamaria stressed while these are some of the most popular apps being used today, the list may soon change, and there are countless other apps and sites just like the ones listed.
You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com.
From New Jersey 101.5's last town hall on online safety: