PHOENIX — Many parents think they know what their children are doing online. But according to detectives, dangers are lurking in innocent smartphone apps — even video games.
Statistics show one out of every five teens has been contacted by a child predator online. Police believe that number may be higher, as many teens are not reporting these encounters.
According to Detective Scott Pietrzak, popular social media apps like Facebook and Twitter are not the apps child predators are using to "groom" and lure their victims.
"If you asked the kids about Facebook these days, they'll laugh at you and call you old for using Facebook," Pietrzak said.
Pietrzak works in the Mesa Police Department's Internet Crimes Against Children unit. He also owns a business called Online Safety Specialists, through which he gives seminars to community groups to talk to them about all of these dangers through first-hand experience.
The popular apps Messenger, Snapchat, and Instagram are predator hot zones, according to police. But chat apps like MocoSpace, Kik, Omegle, or Ask.fm, Telegram, or Whisper — many of which parents have never heard of — can also pose dangers to children. Some of the apps even have locator pins that will show a stranger how far away a user is from them.
Pietrzak said many of the apps are popular because of the video chat feature.
When it comes to monitoring your child's online activities, Pietrzak stressed it was no time for parents to be a teen's "best friend."
"That is when you need to be a parent, talk to them, and set some boundaries. A lot of parents don't even know what their kid's screen names and passwords are," Pietrzak said.
Throughout his years working in the police department, Pietrzak estimated his unit had put hundreds of child predators behind bars. Some of the suspects were school teachers, coaches, and daycare staff.
"Everyone I put away is one less I have to worry about trying to contact my kids," Pietrzak said.
On one chat website, Pietrzak struck up a conversation with a 26-year-old man in Europe posing as a 14-year-old girl. Within less than three minutes, the conversation turned from the video game Fortnite to the man asking "so, do you do naughty stuff?"
In his seminars, Pietrzak reviews popular apps that parents need to be wary of. He also teaches lingo used by teens while texting that could seem like a foreign language to some parents. For example, "AITRGTG Code 8 :*" — adult in the room, got to go, parent is listening, kissy face.
Netsanity.com is a website that continually updates slang of the day. Parents can check out the latest lingo here.
Parents can find other common slang terms used by teens at sites dedicated to family safety.
Pietrzak also says parents should make sure their children don't have the Tor browser installed on their computers. The program allows users to connect to the "dark web." Its icon, or logo, is an onion.
"Parents should look for either Tor, the onion router, or dot-onion websites," Pietrzak said.
Police say they have seen many cases involving teens buying drugs through Tor. The browser lets users access marketplaces with a number of illicit substances. Users can only buy drugs with online currency such as Bitcoin, but detectives say most teens have the technical know-how to purchase bitcoins.
Some of the marketplaces are selling hardcore drugs like heroin, cocaine, and all kinds of prescription drugs available for sale on the dark web. Pietrzak said it unnerved him to think about how easy the dark web made it for people to get a hold of dangerous drugs coming from another country. Many of the drugs could be laced with the deadly drug fentanyl.
"It's coming straight to your house. A parent won't know. It could be inside of a CD. It could be inside of a DVD box. A parent will think you're getting a movie or something and there it is," Pietrzak said.
Pietrzak also warns that while some kids' social media pages may look ordinary, they may have a second account in order to hide certain posts from adults. Kids will often refer to their fake Instagram account as their "Finsta."
One app, disguised as a calculator, will allow kids to switch back and forth between their primary and "fake" accounts by punching in a unique code.
In addition to online predators, cyberbullying also continues to be a concern with teens. Some of the apps have been linked to teen suicides across the nation.
Read more about the popular apps teens are using here.
This story was originally published by Sonu Wasu at our sister station, KNXV in Phoenix.