Social Creeping

Parents need to know that their kids might be posting more using their phone than they think.


 A story every parent must watch. We had only aired the previews for this story when we received a phone call from a mother who recognized her daughter in one of the provocative pictures we found online.  More on that coming up.

"They lure girls in by telling them that they're beautiful and they're wonderful and they're smart.  That's called grooming, I heard later," said a woman who we'll call "Bracha."

She knows only too well the methods online predators use to prey on their victims, because it happened to her daughter.  Bracha says 14-year-old "Ashley" met a much older man in a chat room.  We've chosen not to use their real names.

The man met Ashley through the computer -and then, he wanted to meet in person.

"I was scared because he knew where we lived, and he knew our phone number," recalled Bracha.

You may have heard these horror stories before.  But even if you're a parent who monitors what your child does on the computer, chances are you aren't paying as much attention to the one thing your kid probably carries wherever he or she goes.

We were easily able to find a steady stream of pictures of girls, many of them downright provocative.  And it wasn't on Facebook.  It was on an iPhone app called Instagram.  The photos are being shared straight from kids' smart phones with an online community that can like, follow, and even comment on them.  There's no computer necessary.  Web experts like Quinnipiac University's Phillip Simon say it's the next level of social networking, and parents must stay alert.

"There's no question that a predator could use this to find someone they want to track down and figure out where they live," said Simon.

The scariest part? Anyone could potentially track where the pictures are taken using GPS data encrypted in the picture.  It's a process known as geotagging.

Here's how it works.  You snap a picture, post it online, and if geotagging is enabled there's the possibility that anyone could potentially pinpoint where you are just by using Google Maps.

With Instagram, you do have to turn on the option for geotagging.  Still, it's not the only way your kids can be tracked.  We discovered many teens upload their posts with multiple hashtags like "teen" or "Connecticut."  We found we could actually map out the locations of where some local young women were posting from.

"I'm able to find out the town someone lives in, I'm able to tell where a friend's house, the exact address where they live.  I can tell where they've gotten their nails done, where they've gone to eat, where they go to shop," said Simon.

And of course, what they look like.  Instagram is catching fire with everyone from tweens to adults.  But there are all kinds of social networking apps out there, and even social gaming apps for smart phones like the iPhone or Droid.  Many come with options to comment or chat in real time, opening up avenues to strangers at any time, in any place.

"This child looks pretty young and she has a picture of herself posing for anybody," said Detective John Dunn with the Guilford Police Department.

Law enforcement is racing to catch up.  Dunn is a seasoned detective with the Guilford Police Department.  He's handled many cases where potential predators meet children through social networking sites.  But when NBC Connecticut showed him Instagram, he was shocked by what he saw.
"I had no idea there was this kind of app out there," said Dunn, "something like this is pretty disturbing."

So we went to internet security expert and Quinnipiac University professor Alexander Halavais to find out how parents can protect their kids. 

"They keep the computer in the living room but don't realize that in many cases a much more powerful computer is in their child's pocket," he said.

Halavais said it is important to talk to your child about how they are using their phones-and more importantly, you should know how to use them.  Start with turning off the geotagging option.  On the iPhone, that's the location services tab under settings.  On your blackberry camera, it's the geotagging tab.  You can also limit when the iPhone's camera can be used.  And finally, know your child's passwords and check what apps they are downloading.

Mom Bracha wants parents to stay vigilant.

"You can never be too protected.  You can never be too safe," she said.

NBC Connecticut reached out repeatedly to Instagram for comment. So far we have not heard back.

As for the parent who says she may have recognized her daughter on our air, she says she plans on watching this story with her daughter, and checking her child's iPhone.
For more on how to protect your children's privacy, visit this site from Apple, or this site on parental controls.

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