Dating App Dangers: Keeping teens safe

Phone Crime Generic

Sex assaults of underage teens are happening in Hawaii after the victim and suspect connect through online dating apps. Always Investigating shows just how easily kids can fall prey, and what authorities and parents can do about it.

Within minutes of setting up a profile, we found children can be connected with adults who might be predators on loosely monitored sites that can evade parental controls. Recent cases have harmed young teens here in Hawaii.

A boy meets someone he thinks is another teen online through a popular dating app, but at a meetup, the suitor turns out to be a much older man and the teen is sexually assaulted. A teenage girl is drawn into an app by a much older adult male, several more connections are made, and multiple sexual assaults ensue within weeks.

These are some real-life horror stories that have happened to island teens using mobile hook-up sites.

“Sex assaults, rapes, sodomies, extortion, a lot of it has to do with extortion, revenge porn,” explains Chris Duque, a former HPD officer now a cybercrimes investigator for the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office, with a warning for parents: “It’s giving your kid a loaded gun.”

He shows us just how quickly danger can happen. He sets up a profile of a young girl on one of the sites a recent victim met suspects on. Just say you’re 18 and it starts. And the net quickly widens.

“It asks five people you know,” he demonstrates, showing the app could also end up looping in a lot of other kids who didn’t want to be in it. “They’ll send invites on your behalf to your contact list that you share,” Duque said.

The Honolulu Police Department says that of their reports of sex assaults where suspect and victim met through an app, they’ve found juveniles are more vulnerable, and many cases involved drinking or drugs.

HPD warns how on most sites:

Age policies/restrictions are not enforced or checked. Teens can and do join, just by saying they’re 18.
Adults pose as teens.
Fabricated interests and personal history mislead kids about who they’re meeting.
A quick look at the profile photos shows many girls on one site aren’t likely the adults they claim to be, but the door is now wide open.

“She’s pretty young. I don’t think she’s 18, that’s for sure,” Duque says as he reviews one profile. “Location – wow — shows on a map, what they’re interested in, and she’s also on Facebook.”

Back to our test profile, we set it to seek other guys age 18 as well, but the system quickly makes matches with people far older than that. We stop at that, but here’s what authorities say often happens next.

“There’s ‘sextortion,’ in that the child is engaged in the conversation with supposedly another child. They start exchanging explicit photographs, and then on the other side, demands some kind of sexual activity,” Duque said. The child backs away, the person on the other side says, ‘If you don’t do this, I’m going to post your pictures on the internet.’ So they meet. Sometimes it’s another teenager, sometimes it’s an adult.”

Police told us in a statement that “HPD cautions anyone who uses dating apps to be careful and to make personal safety a priority” and warns parents to “get to know your kids’ friends, what activities they like, and where they hang out.”

The issue is on the radar of state lawmakers.

“Unfortunately, there’s a dark side to the internet and telecommunications,” said State Sen. Will Espero. “Now we are at the point where we need to step it up, and I will be introducing legislation that will provide more funding for the Attorney General’s office and other law enforcement that could help with internet crimes against our children.”

Espero says regulating apps could be too difficult because many are foreign-based, or easily come and go from the market. But changes could be made for cell phone providers and carriers, to give parents more access and visibility into their kids’ phones.

“When we’re dealing with minors and where the parents are paying for those services, then the parents do have significant rights,” Espero said. “At that time I expect the attorneys, the lawyers, the communications industry, ACLU, to come out and tell us what they think.”

Until then, authorities say parents are the only gatekeepers. So what can parents do to try to prevent some of the worst-case scenarios?

“One of the things I really push on the parent is parental supervision,” Duque said, “using flesh-and-blood traditional parenting and just tweak it a little bit to the tech arena. When it’s time for bed, take their phones and put them in the dresser until it’s time to wake up.”

Duque also advises no mobile phones in the bathroom, or alone in the bedroom, and be on the lookout for inappropriate selfies. Ask who they’re talking to or texting.

KHON2 asked how often should a parent be picking up that smartphone and taking a look?

“Pretty much whenever an opportunity arises, at least once a day,” Duque said. “Make it part of your daily conversation, interaction with your child. Some parents say, ‘Well, I want to respect my child’s privacy.’ I say – I was going to use a stronger word – but that’s baloney. The safety of the child overrides their expectation of privacy, that’s number one.”

He said be involved with their children and pay attention to any behavior changes.

Investigators tell me kids aren’t just using dating apps – both popular and obscure — to make connections. It also happens on social media sites that many parents are familiar with.

Lots of apps are available that promise to help parents monitor kids’ mobile phone activity, but many kids quickly figure out how to get around those, so make sure you’re as good at IT, or information technology, as your teen is.

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