Updated: 6:43 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013 | Posted: 5:21 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013

Target 11 investigates smartphone app predators use

PITTSBURGH —

For months now, Target 11 has reported on the dangers of apps like Snapchat, Kik and even video game systems. They're all great ways to communicate if used properly. But in the wrong hands, they can prove very dangerous.

It's called Whisper. It's completely anonymous. Users don't have to register, and there's no user profile to fill out. It also puts users in contact with people in their area. And because of all of that, it's become yet another tool for predators, who are using it to zero-in on teens and young children.

Target 11 sat down with internet security expert Rick Wallace, who works for Pittsburgh-based Tiversa. He showed exactly how the app works.

"Anyone here from Franklin Regional High School?" Wallace read one whisper.

Whisper allows people to share secret messages and photos anonymously. And because it allows users to communicate directly with others nearby, Wallace says it's become a favorite of predators.

"If you are a bad guy, you could say, 'This girl is lonely; here I am a quarter-mile down the street,' take a picture, put some text on there and start communications," said Wallace.

And that's exactly what police say happened just outside of Seattle, Wash., where they allege a man used Whisper to contact a 12-year-old girl. Police say the man eventually lured that girl to a hotel for sex.

And in Arkansas, a high school athletic director is accused of contacting who he thought was a teen girl for sex. The man was arrested and charged.

And Target 11 has learned that police in the Pittsburgh area are also working a similar case, but investigators would not release any more information because they don't want to jeopardize the investigation.

"Absolutely, it's scary. Absolutely scary with young grandchildren," said Mickey Parariella, who was picking up his grandchildren at a local high school.

Target 11 downloaded the free app, and while there is a warning that users must be 17 years old to use it, there's nothing stopping anyone from getting on Whisper.

Cruising the app, Target 11 found simple postings, like, "I'm really bored," to ones so suggestive and provocative that they couldn't be shown on 
Channel 11 News.

Target 11 showed some of the messages and photos to Renee Gorman, who was picking up her daughter from high school.

"Oh, my. It's another site that I'm sure teenagers will be using. Which is maybe not the best thing," said Gorman.

FBI spokesperson Kelly Kochamba tells Target 11 that the FBI is aware of Whisper and other social media apps that criminals may be using to target children and teens.

Kochamba, who frequently speaks to groups and organization about internet safety, says parents need to stay one step ahead of the predators. She says they can do that by educating their children. Kochamba says parents and children can learn more about the internet from an online safety program sponsored by the FBI. It's called FBI-SOS, or Safe Online Surfing.

"Try to educate them that not everybody is who they really are online, not everything they hear online is true, and just to be aware of that," said Kochamba.

The following statement can be attributed to a Whisper spokesperson: “Whisper was created with the mission of helping users find meaningful connections and support. Our No. 1 priority is maintaining the safety of the Whisper community, which is why we have a global, around-the-clock moderation team as well as algorithmic real-time text, image and sentiment analysis to monitor for illegal or illicit behavior. We have a self-imposed zero tolerance policy for these behaviors and, like all law-abiding companies, we comply with valid legal process.”

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