Target 11 investigates: Predators preying on children through text messaging apps

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PITTSBURGH - Authorities said predators are always finding new ways to prey on children and now they're issuing an alert for parents to be careful what application children download on their smart phones and iPods. 

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala said the criminals are using the apps to track and groom kids.

“Where do you live? What do you like?’ Very innocent. Very innocuous. Then it evolves,” he said. “These are very bad people."

Last year, his office investigated more than 400 cases of cyber predators and he is currently working on a case involving a texting app company based in Canada.

“We traced certain pedophiles to the use of this app and we sent subpoenas out,” Zappala said. “We are working with the FBI, trying to figure out a way we can indict these guys for creating a public nuisance in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

One local mother said her daughter downloaded a free texting app after getting an iPod Touch for Christmas. Not long after the download was complete, 8-year-old Emily's mother said her daughter began receiving messages from strangers.

"Hi. How are you," read one, Emily's mother said. "She's 8 and I don't let her have the iPod when it's not in my sight."

With the help of an Internet security expert, Target 11's Rick Earle downloaded one free texting app and set up an account as a 13-year-old girl.

Within minutes, Earle received messages from nine people -- all strangers claiming to be teenage boys.

“There are this many people trying to contact us knowing what the profile is,” Tiversa cyber expert Rick Wallace said.

Wallace said the app put us in touch with people in our geographic area, which Wallace said makes it "extremely dangerous.”

One wrote text message said, “Can u send me a pic.” Another said “Can I have a pick of u.”

So what can you do to protect your child?

Turn off the cell phone “location services” function so it can not be tracked. Use the parental controls to restrict apps and establish a password.

There are also apps parents can download that monitor your child’s cell phone texting activity. "My mobile watchdog" is one example.

“You've got to be vigilant all the time,” Zappala advised.