Social media and smartphone apps are now an integral part of society, and for many younger people they are the sole source of communication with their friends and peers. The apps allow them to maintain friendships and make new friends in faraway places.
They also have turned into a virtual breeding ground for sex traffickers.
And while millions continue to communicate through popular social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat, new apps continue to be released and online predators are among the first to sign up.
The fact of the matter is, if parents and others are only looking for suspicious activity on those most popular apps then they are likely already behind.
NBC 7, in conjunction with the San Diego County Human Trafficking Task Force, put together this list of 11 lesser-known apps where online predators are likely hiding, looking for their next child that they can groom for a life of sex trafficking.
Social Media Apps
You've heard of Snapchat and Instagram, but what about these?
LiveMe: A video chat app that allows users to livestream videos and find out a broadcaster's exact location. Marketed for those over 13 years old, LiveMe users regardless of age can reward and tempt others with virtual currency. According to an investigation by Fox11 in Los Angeles, pedophiles were found paying for sexually-explicit photos of girls as young as 5 years old. A spokesperson for LiveMe told Fox 11, “As unfortunate and disturbing as some of these reports are, these are issues not unique to LiveMe... We strive to provide a safe and enjoyable platform for our users, relying heavily on artificial intelligence and the 100 moderators we employ across the globe who are on call 24 hours a day.”
ASKfm: A Latvian social media network that allows users to ask anonymous questions to users across the globe. The app has been called out for promoting cyberbullying and law enforcement warns it could serve as a meeting place for online sex predators to groom their next victim. ASKfm’s communications manager told NBC 7 it has created new ways to protect users on its app. To read about those efforts, click here.
HOLLA: It's a self-described "random" video chat app that allows users to connect across the globe. A November 22 investigation by the Washington Post flagged Holla for failing to prevent or screen unwanted sexual approaches on minor children. The app’s creator declined to comment on their findings. After the Washington Post investigation, the Holla app was removed from most app stores. Attempts to reach Holla for comment were unsuccessful.
Whisper: Dubbed as the “safest place on the internet,” the secret-sharing app where users can express their most hidden thoughts to others anonymously came under fire after the Washington Post found that users' secrets as well as their locations, age, and other personal information was publicly available. In certain instances the information that the company had failed to protect was used to extort and blackmail people. A spokesperson for Whisper disputed the Washington Post’s findings. Whisper did not respond to NBC 7 for comment.
Dating apps have revolutionized the dating world. Long gone is the era of blind dates and singles meet-ups, now single people looking for a companion can log on to any number of websites. And while they are convenient and save some awkward moments, many serve as a breeding ground for sex traffickers and predators. In recent years, the number of those signing up for dating sites have risen dramatically. So, too, have the number of dating apps.
The use of these apps are not evidence that your child or teen is involved in anything illegal or dangerous, but if you see any of these apps on your child's phone, advocates say you should ask them about how they use them, what sort of content they share, and who they are communicating with.
Here’s a list of lesser-known sites that members of the San Diego County Task Force say parents should look out for.
Grinder: An app geared toward LGBTQ users. It gives users the ability to chat, share photos, and meet up based on users' locations.
Skout: Another lesser-known dating app with the usual features: Private message and photo sharing. Minors aren't allowed to join, per the app's terms and conditions, but it isn't hard for a teen to lie about their age when signing up.
Badoo: A dating app that lets users share messages, photos, and videos, and pairs users based on their location. While the app is intended for adults only, officers say teenagers have flocked to the app.
Plenty of Fish: Also referred to as "PoF." This app offers the usual features, but unlike a lot of other apps, all of its features are completely free. Teens with no means of income won't have to pay or subscribe monthly to upgrade features. NBC 7 discovered several criminal investigations where sex trafficking victims met sex buyers through the app.
MeetMe: A dating app that pairs users based on geographic location and encourages them to meet up in person. Unlike some other dating apps, there is reportedly no feature for user verification.
While predators can lurk on a vast array of social media sites, new apps are released on a regular basis. One popular method for teens and children to communicate with others are messaging apps. Officers say parents should be looking beyond their child's text inbox or Facebook Messenger.
KiK: KiK is a free instant messaging app which has a pairing feature called Match & Chat. During the course of the past year, there have been numerous reports of sex trafficking, and sharing and paying for child pornography on KiK. In 2019, the app’s CEO announced it would shut down after the United States Securities and Exchange Commission found millions of dollars in cryptocurrency had been illegally funneled through the app. Searching in the app store, though, the messaging app is still available.
Calculator%: Despite its name, this app does much more than hard-to-solve math problems. Other than the basic calculator function, the app allows users to store secret photos, videos, files and browser history.
Click here to watch the full "STOLEN" series.
- If you or someone you know could be a victim of sex trafficking or exploitation, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text the words "BeFree" or 233733
- If you have a question or story tip for the STOLEN team, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org