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Special Report: Text App Dangers

Posted: 5:51 PM, Feb 06, 2013
Updated: 2013-02-06 16:03:02-05
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WTXL) -- Are free smart phone texting applications giving online predators a private way to stalk your child?

In the modern day of technology, many people, including millions of teens, rely on computers and smart phones for communication.

Odds are you know a teen who uses a smart phone to chat with friends and to share photos. But, are teens putting themselves in danger without knowing it?

For one Colorado mother, that became reality when she says her daughter was contacted by who turned out to be an online predator. The woman says her daughter received various text messages before he conversation took a graphic turn.

"They were asking sexual questions, asking for pictures," the mother said. "I'm scrolling through this and I'm like 'oh my gosh, oh my gosh, who is this person?"

It turned out to be a stranger in pursuit of personal information.

"I had heard of stories about people who did this, that's why I was trying to be so vigilant about monitoring her online activities," the mother said.

While this mom says she was keeping a close eye on her daughter's online activities, she says her daughter was using a free texting app on her smartphone to chat with the man. It was an app that the mother says she didn't recognize because it wasn't linked to the factory installed message folder on the phone.

Popular texting apps include: Text Free, Text Now, and TextPlus.

They're apps that allow users to set up profiles, share pictures and chat with each other. That is how experts say criminals can get access to your child, and often times without anyone ever knowing who they really are.

"The internet allows you to hide, you can be anybody you want to be," said Kevin Wiggins, a cyber crime analyst with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Wiggins, like other law enforcement experts, say teens and kids can be easy targets for online predators, in part because teens are more likely to give up personal information.

"We tell kids all the time, you have to be careful with what you put out there," Wiggins said. "technology is your best friend, but your worst enemy."

In 2011, law enforcement agencies across the state of Florida made 1,276 arrests for cyber related crimes against children. Those arrests involved those possessing and distributing child pornography, those sexually abusing children, and more than 200 of those arrests involved people who traveled to meet who they thought was a minor.

It's a problem seen across the United States. Video released by the Jefferson County, Colorado's District Attorney's office shows an undercover sting as officers arrest a man who thought he was meeting up at a local hotel with an underage girl for sex. Officers say the man they arrested was working at the time as a corrections officer.

Law enforcement experts say there is no one stereotype that defines who a cyber predator may be.

"There are guys you're leery of, but a lot of times there are guys in there that you wouldn't just see walking down the street and say that's a guy to be scared of," Wiggins said. "

WTXL reached out to the developers of some of the more popular texting applications including Text Free, Text Now, and TextPlus. Only representatives with TextPlus were available for comment.

By phone we spoke with Ilan Goldman, Chief Counsel and head of safety, security, and privacy for TextPlus.

Goldman says their app is primarily used by those who want to communicate with others and groups that they know. He says there are measures in place to provide privacy for users.

As part of their terms of service, Goldman says users of their app have to be at least 13 years of age. He says it's important that parents have conversations with their kids and keep a close eye on what their children do online.

"The most important thing for parents to understand is that they are computers, they are not just phones anymore, and they need to be thought of as computers," Goldman said. "They have to take an active role in monitoring, parents can control which application, if they purchase a device they can control which application is downloaded."

The mother in this story says she learned of her daughter's texting activities by accident. The lesson she says her daughter learned."

"Unless you physically know this person you're talking to and that phone number from, you should not talk to that person, period," the mother said.

It's a conversation she says she hopes every parent and child will have.

LINKS

Florida Department of Law Enforcement also provides a series of tips on how to stay safe online and while using smart phones.

TextPlus offers a number of online safety tips geared toward different users including teens, parents, educators, and law enforcement.