Teens being victimized by new app

MIDDLEBURY — The leader of the Addison County Unit for Special Investigations is warning area teens and parents to be on guard for some unsavory side effects of a growing list of social media apps, some of which are leading to teens receiving unsolicited pornographic spam and sexual propositions from strangers.
Det. Sgt. Ruth Whitney of the Unit for Special Investigations reported a concerning trend of teens receiving these unwanted advances through smart phone and iPod applications like “Kik.” Kik is an instant messaging system that uses a smart phone’s data plan or an iPod’s WiFi capability to transmit and receive messages. It also allow users to share photos, sketches, mobile Web pages and other content.
The application is recommended for those aged 17 and up, but anyone can download it.
Whitney said she recently became aware of three young girls in the Addison County area who had received random obscene photos through Kik messaging. They all insisted they did not know the person who had sent the photos. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is also investigating a case involving an older man from the New Jersey area who allegedly attempted to lure a Middlebury-area girl, said Whitney, who added she is not able to share specific details of cases that are still under investigation.
“It is difficult to trace where (the messages) are coming from,” Whitney said. “Anyone who has the Kik application can send photos.”
In some cases, older men have made initial contact with teen girls through Facebook and asked them to switch over to Kik as a conveyance for more risqué material, state and local officials said. There are decency standards that must be observed on Facebook, the world’s largest social media platform. And parents can quite easily monitor their children’s activity on Facebook.
Eric Jollymore, an investigator with the Vermont Department of Public Safety, indicated that Kik has become “extremely popular” amongst high school-age students and early teens. He said its popularity is in part due to its versatility, as it is also able to be run on non-cell devices like an iPod Touch. Some parents might purchase an iPod for a child thinking it is a safe alternative or logical precursor to a cellphone.
“Kik is a popular common find here with evidence at the (state police) lab,” Jollymore stated in a recent e-mail exchange with Whitney. The Department of Public Safety has a lab through which Internet- and computer-related crimes are investigated.
Police Officer Chris Mason is the school resource officer for Middlebury public schools. He, too, has encountered cases involving teens who have received/sent inappropriate texts or e-mails. And Kik is only part of the story.
“By far, the most problems we are having is with Snapchat, which is custom-designed to be used for sexting,” Mason said.
 Snapchat is an application that allows the sender to set a time limit after which the photo will be hidden from the recipient’s device and deleted from Snapchat’s servers. But this can, of course, backfire if a recipient chooses to photograph the image he or she has been sent via Snapchat.
Mason said the temporal nature of the photos makes it a popular vehicle for some people to send things that are “wildly inappropriate and offensive.”
Tinder is another app that is increasingly being used by teens. It is essentially an app that matches potential partners for hook-ups, Whitney noted.
Mason has also seen Facebook used by some students as a means by which to be mean, or bully each other. And there are unfortunately no laws or statutes that affect bullying and harassment, he noted. Oftentimes, disorderly conduct is the only criminal consequence that the most serious offenders can face in harassment and obscenity cases, according to Mason.
As school resource officer, Mason works with students who have been flagged for an offense. Part of his job is to work with the students to let them know the potential consequences of their behavior, if it continues.
Whitney has a message for the parents of teens:
“Monitor what your kids are doing online, whether it’s an iPod, iPad or cellphone,” Whitney said.
Dennis Wygmans, the county’s special prosecutor for domestic violence and sexual assault cases, also flagged Kik as an app that is drawing attention in his office due to the manner in which it is being used by some teens.
“Members of that on-line community can send unsolicited material, contact request, and some pretty graphic material,” Wygmans said. “There are a lot of adults on it who are using it to contact kids.”
He noted Kik was a factor in a felony aggravated sexual assault case that he is currently prosecuting.
Asked what advice he would give to parents with respect to Kik, Wygmans said “block it.”
Addison County Deputy State’s Attorney Chris Perkett said his office continues to see sexting cases and other complaints related to inappropriate use of cellphone apps.
“Generally, we continue to see people using apps like this to try to get greater access to children,” Perkett said. “This is probably the hardest time to be a parent of teenaged kids.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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