A Calgary father and web specialist is going public to warn other parents about a popular website — where major Canadian corporations advertise — and where young teens engage in public, sexually explicit exchanges via live webcam and text.
"I see ads for Canadian companies. And then I look at the site and go, 'Well!' There’s nudity. There’s bullying. There is some of the worst profanity you can imagine," said Dan Rickard.
Rickard said he stumbled across the website called Stickam purely by chance, while researching how to do high-quality video streaming for business purposes.
"This was all discovered in two hours.… As a father, it scares the hell out of me."
Stickam has some 10 million registered users — and most are under the age of 25. Tim Hortons, Rogers, Home Depot and Bank of Montreal are among several large corporations whose ads were displayed prominently on the site.
"This is corporate mainstream," said Rickard. "They spend money advertising on the site. It is interactive and the things that happen are unbelievable."
The "most watched" live videos are often teen girls, in their bedrooms, chatting and posing on webcam, while hundreds — sometimes thousands — of young men watch them online.
Many of the male viewers chat with the girls and try to convince them — sometimes aggressively — to take off their clothes and perform sexual acts.
"If my daughters were on it, I would be extremely concerned," said Rickard. "Within two hours of being on the site, you will see things that shock you."
The Stickam site stipulates users must be 14 years old to join, but there is no mechanism to verify their ages.
CBC News spent a Friday night watching activity on the site, which anyone could see without signing up as a user. Sexually explicit and sometimes violent language was common.
There were also many live chats going on with no sexual content, but those were not usually the "most watched." Stickam also features a significant amount of other content — beyond the live chats — predominantly indie band performances.
On the "most watched" live chats, there was some nudity, but mostly among male users, who appeared naked while they watched and chatted with the girls.
Explicit live talk
A sample of some of the text comments from male viewers watching girls included, "I want to see your a--… Hey give me porn…Tell to your green panties friend to show her a--…C--- slap…D--- hard as a brick…RAPE HER RAPE HER…I’ll make her --- in 10 minutes…Fully erect here…Flash your b--bs… I say let’s get them more drunk - more easy to f---… I forced my 12 year old sister and my 16 year old sister to watch me."
One of the posters quipped, "If it wasn't for us pervs, Stick[am] would go out of business."
CBC News saw a Home Depot banner ad, right next to a girl appearing live in her bed, in lingerie, showing her behind.
A BMO video ad ran immediately before live shots of a young teen, who had 13,000 people watching her and pushing her to take off her clothes. The viewers were chatting about how she looked 12 years old.
There was also a Tim Hortons banner ad above shots of a man's genitalia.
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We also found several other websites where video "captures" — displaying the Stickam logo — have been reposted, showing young girls performing sexual or suggestive acts.
In the U.S., a 39-year-old man was recently charged with what’s been dubbed "sextortion" on Stickam. Richard Finkbiner allegedly convinced dozens of teens to do sexually explicit things, then recorded them and threatened to distribute the video on porn sites if they didn’t do more for him.
This week, a 21-year old Hamilton man was arrested after being suspected of also engaging in this type of "sextortion" on several sites. Police allege Robert Ellis posed as a girl and engaged young boys in video interactions.
"Some of these boys continued chatting via webcam and were urged to disrobe," said Sgt. Terri-Lynn Collings of the Hamilton police.
"The accused recorded these images and video and then threatened to post the images and videos unless the boys provided further pornographic materials. In some cases, the victims complied with the demands of the accused and in others the victims' photographs were shared with friends and relatives."
Police would not confirm whether Stickam was one of the sites used by the man. CBC News discovered his profile JessBabe95 on another chat site, called Teenspot.
In 2009, 20-year-old Jonathan Hock sexually assaulted his unconscious girlfriend live on Stickam. He was convicted after another viewer recorded the assault and reported it.
Company acknowledges problem
Stickam is based in Los Angeles and is a wholly owned subsidiary of Advanced Video Communications.
The president told CBC News the company does not want any inappropriate activity on its site. James Johnson said it has taken several steps to crack down on abusers, including reporting offenders to law enforcement authorities five to 10 times a week.
"We’re doing all we can from the technology side to eliminate the ability for people to participate in what we consider to be inappropriate activity," said Johnson. "We recognize the problem."
He said Stickam has 28 employees and half of them do nothing but monitor the site, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He said the monitors often kick users off, for an hour at a time, for inappropriate language or behaviour.
"The [live webcam] tool is there to be used and some people use it in a bad way and we do all we can to eliminate that," said Johnson.
He added, the site no longer allows users to switch to "private" one-on-one chats, which is where much of the illegal activity happened.
"It is not something we want on the site," said Johnson. "We don’t see a future in this."
He pointed out, several other live chat sites also have sexually explicit interaction between teens, singling out Tinychat in particular. On that site, CBC News saw some of that type of content, however, Tinychat didn't appear to have the same level of corporate advertising.
Ads placed en masse
Ads shown on Stickam are often placed en masse — on several websites — by Google Adsense and other web ad placement services. Advertisers or their agencies state their price and target market — in a real-time "auction" — and the placement services put their ads on sites that meet the bids.
When contacted by CBC News, Rogers, Home Depot and BMO all said they didn’t realize their ads were on the Stickam site.
"We’d like to confirm the site in question was not identified as part of the list that was provided to us when we placed our online advertising. We have removed our advertising from this site," said Rogers spokesperson Carly Suppa.
"We have sites with inappropriate content blocked through our online ad exchange, and we are following up on this," said Paul Berto from Home Depot. "That site is not where our customer is."
BMO said it uses an online ad placement service called DataXu, which placed the ads in a real-time online auction.
"We will certainly have that conversation with these companies about how we undertake even more robust filters," said spokesperson Ralph Marranca.
"In the meantime, we’ve taken Stickam off our advertising list. Moving forward, we are going to review the level of monitoring put in place by any user-generated site to ensure that their filters meet our criteria."
As a result of our inquiries, those three companies and Tim Hortons all said they pulled their ads from the site.
"When you brought this to our attention today, we investigated, and found Stickam wasn't an appropriate site for our ads. We immediately asked our advertising agency to pull our ads. We want to thank CBC for bringing it to our attention," said Tim Hortons spokesperson David Morelli.
Due diligence urged
The marketing manager for a digital marketing company called 6 S Marketing said corporations can — and should — pay closer attention to where their web ads end up.
"It’s really up to their marketing departments and their media planners doing their due diligence … looking at where their ads are showing each and every day … and then providing a report at month’s end of where your ads have shown for that month," said Kelly Robertson.
"It really is a tedious task of going through the literally thousands of websites available to advertisers today … but it's Marketing 101. We pay close attention to avoid situations like this."
When companies use Google Adsense to place their ads, Robertson explained, websites are only excluded if the advertiser intentionally eliminates them. Otherwise, Google can and will place ads on any site that offers unsold ad space.
"It comes down to the large corporations making sure they are not monetizing and making money off of these types of websites and the activity taking place on them."
As a result of our inquiries, Google Adsense said it will now remove Stickam from its list of websites available to advertisers, worldwide.
"Google has strict policies in place regarding the content of pages that show AdSense ads, which are enforced by sophisticated automated systems and human review," said Google spokesperson Andrew Swartz.
"Due to the dynamic nature of website content, however, we do not always immediately detect content that violates our policies."
Dan Rickard hopes his discovery serves as a warning to other parents, to educate their teens and limit their access, particularly to computers with webcams.
"If your laptop has a camera, that is dangerous in my opinion," said Rickard.