The app, Safe Virtual Neighborhood, is the newest development from OffenderWatch and parent company Watch Systems, a Covington-based company known for tracking sex offenders. Watch Systems and Louisiana’s law enforcement community have worked together since 2000, when the company launched its sex offender registry system.
The partners announced the launch of the new app at a news conference in Lafayette on Wednesday.
Mike Cormaci, Watch Systems co-founder and president, said offender registries and opt-in alert systems have been successful and it’s important that law enforcement and private partners adapt to the changing behaviors of children to keep them safe.
Being aware of the offenders that live in your neighborhood is no longer the focus, he said.
A Lafayette man pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday to possessing 300 images of child pornography on his cell phone.
“What we’re going to do now is take it beyond the physical yard. The internet has expanded it to the point where offenders can communicate with your children right there in the living room,” he said.
The Safe Virtual Neighborhood app utilizes existing information collected in law enforcement offender databases and applies it to people’s personal mobile devices. To use it, parents can purchase the app for $9.99 from either the Android or Apple app stores.
The adult will input their relevant information, including name, address, phone number and email. Once registered, the parent will download the same app onto their child’s phone or tablet, where it will operate in the background and monitor who is contacting the child through emails, phone calls, text messages and Snapchat messages.
The app will alert parents if the child is contacted by a phone number or email address belonging to someone on the sex offender registry. It can also track a user’s location and alert a parent if a child lingers near the address of a registered sex offender for an extended period, Cormaci said.
A Port Barre man pleaded guilty in federal court Friday to transporting a juvenile girl across state lines for the purpose of having sex with her.
Under state law, offenders are required to register their email monikers and phone numbers, Cormaci said. If an offender is flagged as contacting the child, parents can push a button on the app to contact their local sheriff’s department.
The Safe Virtual Neighborhood app will not read the messages, store information related to the digital correspondence or collect personal information about the users outside of what’s submitted when registering, he said.
St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne said he’s hopeful the app will deter offenders from contacting children and provide parents some peace of mind about their children’s activity online.
“Parents are craving this kind of stuff,” Champagne said. “I think a lot of parents have no idea what their kids are doing on those cellphones. Kids are living online, and unfortunately sexual predators do it too,” he said.
Champagne said the sheriffs’ association and other law enforcement groups, including the National Sheriffs’ Association, consulted on the app’s development and provided feedback on the growing danger online solicitation poses to minors.
Cormaci said the app was under development for three years. The idea was launched after he recognized that parents weren’t utilizing the email address and phone number search fields on offender registries to their fullest capability. Rather than leave the heavy lifting to parents, they decided to make the process easy and build a tool to screen the information for them.
The app also automatically accounts for changes to the offender database, which can be daunting for parents to navigate. Last year alone, there were about 80,000 modifications to the offender registry, including changes to email addresses, phone numbers and physical addresses, he said.
Champagne said he’s convinced the app will help make children in Louisiana safer. Offenders regularly attempt to contact children online for “illicit meeting for immoral purposes dangerous to these minors,” he said. Though the app has a cost, it’s worth preventing possible harm, he said.
“For you to be able to get a text that your 12-year-old has been contacted by a sex offender, how can you put a price on that?” he said.
Champagne said local sheriff’s departments and the sheriffs’ association will not receive funds from the app’s sale.
OffenderWatch plans to partner with law enforcement departments to offer Safe Virtual Neighborhood in other states by the end of the year, a news release said. The company provides sex offender registry and tracking services in all 50 states and Canada.
The app currently only scans for phone numbers and email addresses listed in Louisiana’s sex offender database. The capabilities will expand as more states and law enforcement agencies partner on the app, OffenderWatch spokesperson Camille Rome said.