"Strangers are using smartphone apps with GPS to track down children and have sex with them."
That's the word from the Douglas County Sheriff's Office and the 18th Judicial District Attorney's Office, which want to warn parents about the dangers of smartphone apps such Grindr and Blendr, which allow adults to find other adults who want to hook up. But when adults use them to hook up with kids, it's illegal.
We spoke with Douglas County Undersheriff Tony Spurlock about the apps and his alarming warning.
"There are a number of sites that are legitimate adult sites that our young people are finding the ability to download on their smartphones," he explains. "And then what happens is, this is a great predator opportunity."
Most of the sites, including Grindr and Manhunt (which cater to men) and Blendr (which caters to both men and women), are free. They require users to be eighteen years old, but like most social media, they have no way to verify if a user is lying about his or her age.
"If (kids) are exploring their sexuality and get on these sites and think, 'I'm big enough to handle this,' and then something happens, you can't undo that," Spurlock says.
He wouldn't comment on specific criminal cases involving the apps or whether any particular crimes prompted the public warning. We've written about a few such cases, including that of Michael Petramala, a school janitor who was arrested for "attempting to meet with two girls under the age of fifteen by means of Internet and social media for sex."
But Spurlock did say that adults who exchange naked photos with teens or meet them for sex could face charges such as child pornography and sexual exploitation of a child.
"If law enforcement knows about it and if we want to get the press to educate parents, obviously it's a concern," he says. "We're not at liberty to discuss any criminal cases or...investigations. If children are involved, we have to protect the children."
Spurlock adds that most of the apps allow users to look at photos of other users and "you can tell by looking at a number of them, these children were not eighteen years old."
Parents should pay more attention to the apps their kids are downloading, Spurlock says. "If you've got a child under eighteen with a smartphone and you're paying the bill and they're living in your home, you should say, 'I want to take a look at it,'" he says.
If parents find apps like Grindr on their kids' phones, he suggests they delete them and then ask their teenagers the tough questions: Have you sent photographs of yourself to anyone you met through the app? Have you met in person with anyone?
"We are totally happy to be part of the conversation," he adds.
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