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Police, school warn of dangerous apps

Kik is just one of many apps that are putting kids at risk for exploitation. Detroit Lakes Police Department is investigating two cases right now. DETROIT LAKES TRIBUNE/Brian Basham

If parents aren't keeping up with their kids' social media apps, local police say they should start.

"I have two school iPads sitting on my desk right now," said Detroit Lakes Police Investigator Robert Strand, who is investigating them for exploitation of a child.

He says one of the students - a middle schooler - had downloaded an app called Kik Messenger, which is an instant messenger popular with kids and teens. Experts say it's also popular with pedophiles, who create fake, juvenile profiles and begin connecting with children all over the world who use the app.

"They engage in conversation with them, get them to let their walls down and then convince them to take pictures of themselves to send to them," said Strand, who says in the most recent case with the Detroit Lakes Middle School student, the unknown person at the other end was very explicit. Strand says the person convinced the student to take compromising photos of herself to send, and she did.

"They (the photos) have not been passed around locally," said Strand, but indicated that there was a very high potential for the person who received them to do so. Authorities have not identified who it is yet, but do know it is a fake profile. With apps like Kik that receive very low security scores, users can be difficult to trace.

Stand says the police department is working with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to try to solve the case but says it will take time.

"We're probably one of thousands they get in every day," Strand said of requests for assistance with the national organization.

In talking to the Detroit Lakes student, he is certain she had no idea what she was getting into.

"I think she was shocked," said Strand, who says it was her concerned parents who brought the situation to police.

"Don't think that, 'Ah, my kid would never do anything like that,' because they might," said Strand, who says parents need to check their children's phones and tablets on a very regular basis and know exactly what is on them.

"I know some parents don't want to impede on their child's privacy, but I'm of the opinion that kids don't have privacy at that age," said Strand. "They're not entitled to it, and I think it's more important that parents make sure their kids aren't a victim of this."

A list of apps that experts believe put kids at risk for this type of situation include Kik Messenger, Meow Chat (which has a Hello Kitty theme to it), Snapchat, Instagram, Tinder, Blendr, Whisper, Ask.fm, Yik Yak, Poof, Omegle and Down.

The problem for parents is, new apps like these are popping up all the time, so it's tough to stay ahead of it.

Detroit Lakes Education Director Renee Kerzman says the school district doesn't have a filter that is hooked up to its iPads because they "just don't work very well."

"No matter what filters people have in this world, kids get around them," said Kerzman, who says between poor filters and ever-changing apps, the best thing a parent can do is to have an open dialogue with their students and talk about the dangers of these apps.

The cases currently being investigated by Detroit Lakes police happen to be school-issued iPads this time, but Kerzman says the much bigger issue lies within the students' personal devices.

"Kids are smart - they're usually not going to do anything on an iPad that they know is school property," said Kerzman, who says teachers are continually doing random checks on the devices. "But it's on their own phones and iPads and things that they bring to school where they might be more inclined to do these things."

Kerzman says parents need to keep checking their children's devices because "we all know that kids can download an app, take it off if they think they need to, then download it again," said Kerzman, who says online safety is part of the students' curriculum at the school, but says continual education from home is what will best keep kids safe from predators.

"We held five iPad meetings for parents before school started this year, and I asked them if they would send their kid walking alone in some neighborhood that they don't know," said Kerzman, "because this is very similar. Help them, guide them, check on them."

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