I-Team: Predators targeting teens and children on popular apps

I-Team
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SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) – Popular smartphone apps could be leading predators directly to your children.

The 22News I-Team found several websites and apps, that have become a breeding ground for predators. Some of the apps require users to be at least 18-years-old, but with a few clicks of a button, your child can easily lie about their age.

One of the live stream apps, called LiveMe, featured an 11-year-old girl dancing in front of a camera, as comments from men came pouring in.

We also saw another underage girl posing in what appears to be a swimsuit, as strangers called her beautiful, and even asked to see her underwear.

Massachusetts State Police Sgt. James Dowling works for the State Police Cyber Crimes Unit, which investigates Internet crimes against children. “There are many apps that have live streaming, many apps that have geolocation.”

Sgt. Dowling told the I-Team, they’ve seen many cases involving live video apps, where adults prey on young teens and children.

Many of the apps have geolocation, which means they pinpoint your location on a map. If your location services are turned on, that information is available for everyone to see, including potential predators. 

Last year alone, his unit investigated 2,900 cyber tips across Massachusetts. “We average about 250 tips a month from social media, some of them hardcore child pornography, all of the way down to simple chats.”

We wanted to know how quickly a child can become a target, so I posed as a 14-year-old girl and went on an anonymous chat app, called Omegle.

The first thing we stumbled on was this warning: “Predators have been known to use Omegle, so please be careful.”

My first conversation was with a user who identified himself as an 18-year-old, within 2 minutes, he asked me for nude photos.

Sgt. Dowling was not surprised by our results. “I would venture to say 2 minutes was a long time. The conversation always turns to a sexual nature in these sorts of situations.”

Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Gulluni told the I-Team, it’s a crime that’s happening right here in western Massachusetts. “Very often these apps allow people to create their own profiles that allow them to converse with children. We’re often working on cases of child pornography, where predators or criminals are seeking images from young people. 

Back in November, 22News told you about Kenneth Gullotti of Springfield, who was arrested after he allegedly exchanged pornographic photos with an 11-year-old boy on the app, and eventually met him in person.

That man has since been indicted on charges of kidnapping and rape.

DA Gulluni told the I-Team, the danger of children being targeted on apps will only get worse, as technology gets better:

“My suggestion would be to have a conversation with your child about a policy or how you’re going to go about reviewing their phone periodically, and let your child know, I’m the parent, I’m paying for this and I’m going to have access to protect you. I think those conversations are important.”

Many of these apps shut down predatory accounts once they’ve been reported, but new ones are always popping up, which is why supervision is key.

The I-Team contacted Omegle and LiveMe about our interactions on their apps, but they haven’t gotten back to us.

Click here to see apps that parents should be aware of.

If you believe your child has been the victim of an internet predator, contact your local police department. You can also contact the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Taskforce of the Massachusetts State Police at (617) 590-9303, or the Hampden District Attorney’s office at (413)747-1000.

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