On Spotafriend, a cellphone app marketed to teens, “Logan” was a 17-year-old boy looking to meet other young people in San Diego County.
In reality, police say, he was a 21-year-old man who used the app to start an unlawful sexual relationship with an underage girl.
Spotafriend, which boasts more than a million users, is touted on its website as a new way for teenagers to make friends, but many observers have described it as “Tinder for Teens,” likening it to the popular dating app for adults.
The similarities are fairly obvious.
On Spotafriend, young people between the ages of 13 and 19 are invited to swipe through the profiles of others in their vicinity, just like adults do on the Tinder app. If the users on both ends swipe right, it’s a “match” — allowing them to send messages to one another.
That’s what makes Spotafriend, and other social apps that are marketed to teens, potentially dangerous, according to law enforcement officials and parent groups. Despite the companies’ attempts to safeguard against misuse, app users can’t really be sure the people they’re trading messages with are who they say they are — or if they’re even teens at all.
“Any app that encourages kids to form connections with strangers is dangerous,” said Kristen Amicone, director of education and technology at the San Diego PoliceFoundation. She runs a program that educates youth and parents about internet safety.
“Kids connecting with each other on these apps is a beautiful thing,” she continued. “It’s (a problem) when adults come in and ruin things.”
In mid-September, the person who called himself “Logan” on Spotafriend matched with a 14-year-old girl from Oceanside. The two chatted on the app, then began exchanging text messages. It wasn’t long before the conversation turned sexual.
A day after he went to the girl’s home, she reported that she had been sexually assaulted.
Oceanside police arrested a suspect in that case, Isaiah Smallwood-Jackson of Vista. He now faces sex crime charges in Superior Court in North County. He also has been charged in federal court with attempted enticement of a minor.
He has pleaded not guilty in both cases.
The potential danger that exists when strangers interact with children and teens on the internet is nothing new, but it has moved beyond desktop computers to smartphones, which may be harder for parents to monitor.
In a 2015 survey, the Pew Research Center found that nearly 75 percent of teens ages 13 to 17 owned or had access to a smartphone.
Another cause for concern, experts say, is that many mobile apps use the phones’ location technology to connect people based on their proximity to one another.
One of those apps is Yellow, which allows users to match with girls and boys who are nearby (to create a profile, you need a Snapchat account). A description on Apple’s iTunes reads: “Yellow is a social app to meet new friends and have fun with them. Friendship is going to the next level! It’s like being in a party and meeting cool people every 10 seconds.”
Omegle isn’t an app, but a website that can be accessed on mobile devices. A chat room of sorts, it, too, is a way to connect strangers online.
“When you use Omegle, we pick someone else at random and let you talk one-on-one,” a message on the website reads. “To help you stay safe, chats are anonymous unless you tell someone who you are (not suggested!), and you can stop a chat at any time. Predators have been known to use Omegle, so please be careful.”
A disclaimer on the site warns: Do not use Omegle if you are under 13. If you are under 18, use it only with a parent/guardian’s permission. Although the video chat is moderated, the site says, “you may still encounter people who misbehave. They are solely responsible for their own behavior.”
Investigators with the San Diego-based Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which works to identify and arrest online predators, said adults on teens apps use various ploys to lure their victims, including lying about their age on a profile or posing as the opposite sex, using fictitious personal information and photos.
Most of the apps, experts say, lack effective security measures to keep predators — or people outside their marketed age group — away.
Spotafriend’s verification process to vet individuals older than 19 requires new users to take and submit a selfie in a specific pose — holding up three fingers, for example. In a previous statement to the Union-Tribune, Spotafriend’s technical support team said, in part, that the app’s verification process relies on “age-recognition software” that “has successfully blocked 99% of unwanted users.”
But investigators say no security measures are foolproof.
In the case involving the man posing as “Logan,” the suspect listed his age as 17 on Spotafriend, but the description included in his profile noted: “(must be open minded) I’m actually 21,” according to the federal complaint.
“Some of the apps are trying, but there’s always a way around,” said San Diego police Sgt. Dale Flamand, a member of the task force.
More than 130 investigators from 34 agencies serve on the task force, which investigates internet crimes in three counties: San Diego, Imperial and Riverside. There are 60 other regional task forces across the country that focus on investigating internet crimes against children.
At any given time, each local investigator on the task force has 40 to 50 open cases, many of them involving making or sharing child pornography. Perhaps the most time-consuming — and important — task is skimming through a suspect’s electronics, including cellphones, which can be seized after investigators obtain and serve a search warrant.
Investigators said about 95 percent of the sexual predators are men, with gender being the only common characteristic. They vary widely in age, race and socioeconomic status.
As for the victims, investigators said, boys and girls are represented fairly evenly in the cases they’ve investigated. It’s not uncommon for victims to be 11 or 12 years old, with the youngest being around 8 or 9 years old.
Experts agree that parents have to be diligent in monitoring children’s cellphones and their interactions on the devices.
“It’s on the parents,” said Flamand. “They’re giving their child a gateway into the world when they give them that phone or that tablet. The good, the bad, the ugly.”
He noted a recent case in which a San Diego mother helped foil a 24-year-old man’s attempt to meet up with her 11-year-old daughter.
Their first encounter was on Candid, a now defunct mobile app that allowed people of any age to discuss topics while remaining anonymous.
Within days, the man engaged in sexually-explicit conversations with the girl, sent her nude photos of himself and urged her to do the same, authorities said.
When the girl’s mother found those conversations on an iPad, she called police.
An officer with the task force took over the chats, posing as the girl, and set up a meeting with the suspect, later identified as Miguel Cervantes. On March 30, Cervantes drove to a McDonald’s restaurant close to the girl’s house, thinking he was meeting her.
Instead, he met police.
Cervantes pleaded guilty in federal court to attempted enticement of a minor. He was sentenced last month to 11 years in prison.