Predators use popular apps to target children

New apps out everyday, struggle for investigators to keep up

ABINGDON, Va. - Court documents show 23-year-old Mack Crowder, a former Tennessee High and UT football player, used two different online mediums to contact who he thought was a 14-year-old girl. Those sites include the apps Whisper and KiK.

KiK may sound familiar because it was the same app investigators say a Surgoinsville teen used to meet a convicted sex-offender with before she ran away with him in the summer of 2015.

More recently, investigators revealed it was Kik that a Blacksburg girl met a freshman Virginia Tech student on. She was found dead in the woods after meeting him.

News 5's Kristi O'Connor looked into some of these more popular apps that kids are using.

Investigators say the apps are deceiving. They can look like innocent games or even disguised as a calculator, but what is behind the friendly appearance could be a predator's trap for your child.

In 2007, Kathi Roark says the Children's Advocacy Center of Washington County, Va. dealt with its first case of child exploitation through the internet.

Each year the center sees more and more victims of internet crime. Roark says it seems that with every new case comes a new app investigators have to learn.

"It seems as if there has to be trouble that happens to someone utilizing a particular app or platform before its even really well known," Roark said.

"They're putting apps out so quickly that we can't keep up with knowing all of them ourselves," Washington County, Va Sheriff's Lieutenant Jamie Blevins said.

Just five years ago Lt. Blevins was tracking Yahoo chat rooms, then it was MySpace, Facebook and Twitter.

"Right now KiK messenger is probably the most prominent thing that we deal with, there's also Snapchat, there's also Tinder," Lt. Blevins said.

In many of the apps the messages and pictures disappear or the users never have to enter personal information other than a screen name.

"We see them playing games in our living room, but we may not know the people that they're playing with," Roark said.

The features are alarming to parents, but they also make it difficult for investigators to prosecute.

"There's so many records because this is all worldwide, that they can only keep the records for so long," Lt. Blevins said.

"Some of these, their servers are not even housed in the United States," Roark said.

Even if investigators can track a suspect down, Blevins says often times the predator is halfway around the world.

Lt. Blevins says it comes down to prevention and that's where parents come in.

The Children's Advocacy Center with Highlands Community Services is putting on a one-day conference for parents, community members and law enforcement. The conference is called "Champions 4 Children." It will focuses on prevention and protection of child abuse and exploitation.

Roark says a retired FBI Special Agent will be the keynote speaker. Verizon will also be there to educate parents on what parental controls they can put on their children's phones and devices.

The conference is on Tuesday, March 15 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For more information visit the conference website here.

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