Target 8: Teens exposed to sex predators on popular app

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Federal authorities in West Michigan say they’re seeing a growing number of sex crime-related complaints involving young victims reached through the ‘Kik’ phone messaging app.

On its webpage, the app run by a company based in Canada boasts use by 40% of American youth.

Department of Homeland Security investigators say Kik is also being used by pedophiles seeking to exchange inappropriate photos or worse.

“As far as the ones that come to us as cases with problems, it’s the most common  right now,” Agent Blair Babcock with Homeland Security office in Grand Rapids told Target 8. “Generally speaking, it’s geared toward a younger market.”

Grand Rapids police say they have fielded more than a dozen complaints involving the app. Michigan State Police say they have prosecuted one man who actually drove to the home of a victim he met on the app and sexually assaulted a teenage girl. Authorities found out about the incident after the victim disclosed it during a juvenile detention stint, authorities say. The perpetrator was convicted.

Agent Babcock said he suspects that the app’s design has a lot to do with the complaints. The app is a phone-only program, which allows young people to use it in private. It also has many different applications inside the app itself, making it easier to hide inappropriate images and conversations.

“If you don’t know how it works, you shouldn’t let your kids use it,” Babcock advised.

Machica Smith contacted Target 8 after she discovered several images of male genitalia on her 11-year-old daughter’s Kik app. She also found messages from several people requesting that her daughter send images of herself. The girl never cooperated.

“My mind is just really messed up from it all ’cause I just can’t believe that she would have to see something like that,” Smith said. “They ruining these kids’ lives.”

Another case involving a West Michigan teen went much further. The teen and her mother shared their story with Target 8, but asked that their identities be concealed. The then-14-year-old victim said she began chatting with a man she believed was a 16-year-old boy named “Nick” and even considered him to be her boyfriend though they had never met.

“It just sounded like he was a normal teenager. He talked like a normal teenager,” the girl told Target 8. “He sent pictures of a normal teenager.”

Eventually, her mother became aware of inappropriate contact on the phone and contacted the police.

“I’ve seen it change my child. I’ve seen it hurt my daughter. I’ve seen it change her,” the girl’s mother said. “He violated something.”

Investigators developed a suspect in the case — they believe “Nick” is actually a 52-year-old man from the state of Washington, police reports show. Detectives said that he is a convicted bank robber who had also been a suspect in a child pornography investigation in which authorities reportedly found some 7,000 images of child pornographic material in his home. It’s not clear whether charges ever came of that case.

The victim in the West Michigan case, now 16 years old, said she sent images of herself after developing trust for the individual on the other end of the chat.

“I look up my name a lot of times on Google and just search through as far down as I can, just hoping that my pictures aren’t on there,” she said. “I never thought my phone would be that dangerous.”

West Michigan authorities forwarded the case to police in Washington, but it does not appear that the case ever went anywhere. The West Michigan victim says investigators from Washington have not contacted her.

Police say catching the perpetrators is only a small fraction of the problem. For every bad guy they catch, there are hundreds more out there doing the very same thing, they say. Part of the reason why is that child pornography is a financially lucrative endeavor, with users willing to pay close to $100 a month for subscriptions. Because the sites pushing such materials are often run outside of the United States, shutting the sites down is often difficult, if not impossible.

The best line of defense against online predators starts at home, authorities say.

“They’re looking for a kid whose parents aren’t supervising them closely,” Agent Babcock said.

While Kik may be the latest dangerous craze, authorities say there will undoubtedly be more. Babcock encourages parents to regularly and thoroughly look through teens’ electronic devices. If there are apps that parents can’t use, Babcock encourages them to prohibit their children from using them as well.

“If you’re not paying attention to what your kid is doing with those kind of devices, it’s not that much different from leaving a loaded gun around the house or a bag of drugs or some other thing that could get them in real trouble,” he said.

Babcock said getting information from Kik to complete criminal investigations is often a slow and difficult process, made even more of a struggle by the fact that the app company is based outside of the United States.

Target 8 twice reached out to Kik but never received a response.

The warning from one young girl who became a victim because her interactions on the app is simple: Don’t use the Kik app.

“I really needed somebody, so I was vulnerable and he got me good,” the girl said. “I think about it all the time.”

Anyone with information about perpetrators of internet child abuse is urged to contact the Michigan Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which has resources to help parents protect their children from potential harm online.

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