Live apps allow sexual predators to interact with children

Predators can send children comments, gifts, on apps

By Amy Viteri - Investigative Reporter

PEMBROKE PARK, Fla. - Evolving technologies mean it’s easier than ever for anyone to be live on the internet at any time.

But the apps that makes live-streaming possible are also becoming the newest tools child predators are using to reach children.

"This is what, you know, 20 years ago was the stranger offering candy to a child," Homeland Security Investigations Deputy in Charge John Tobon said.

Tobon said in this age of online celebrity, everyone wants to be the next internet sensation.

"As they chase those followers so that they can be like that is how children fall into these traps," he said.

A 10-year-old elementary school student from Broward County -- called Maddy for this story -- used to use a live-stream app called Live.me to show off her skills as a dancer.

To show approval, followers can not only comment, but can  also send gifts.

"For me, I like getting gifts, and I like when people show love and I like showing my talent," Maddy said.

The comments include praises but also pressure from strangers to do things Maddy wasn't comfortable with.

"Some of them, like, say weird stuff like, 'Can you bend over?' and all that," she said. "People, like, I'm entertaining them, and I don't want to be boring."

Maddy's mother, who didn’t want to be identified for privacy reasons, said she got a Facebook message from a watchdog group telling her predators were following Maddy's account.

"There were predators watching her broadcast, making comments, asking her to undress," she said. "(There were) grown men, some of them as old as 70."

A quick search of broadcasts shows young girls doing everything from dancing provocatively to exposing themselves as followers urge them to do more.

"They take showers and bring the phones in with them," Maddy's mother said.

How easy does this make it for predators to prey on a child?

"It's virtually a storefront, really," Tobon said. "They can just go from broadcast to broadcast."

The app's warranty disclaimer states that use of the service will be at the user's risk and that it assumes no liability or responsibility resulting from the use of the service.

Maddy's mom said by the time children realize something is wrong, they often feel it's too late to speak up.

"There's an actual phrase for when these images are used against somebody, and it's called 'sextortion,'" Tobon said.

It's illegal, but the anonymity and volume of people online make it hard for law enforcement and companies to crack down on this behavior.

"You'll shut an account down, but they'll be able to open up another one," Tobon said. "So it's-a whack-a-mole type of situation."

Tobon said these interactions can often lead predators to ask to meet the child in person.

"We understand the challenges of managing a social community and take our responsibility in protecting our users very seriously," Live.me said in a statement. "Our community guidelines reflect our zero tolerance policy towards any indecent or inappropriate behavior, and we actively support law enforcement in identifying and prosecuting any users found to be violating any laws or endangering our community in any way. The live broadcasting space is a new frontier in how people connect with one another, and we strive to ensure the Live.me community is a safe and friendly place for all users. Beyond automatic software detection and human moderators currently in-place, we have also developed tools for users themselves to block people from their broadcasts and self-report any harassment they may feel."

The best defense for a parent is knowing what app a child is using and having an individual account. 

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