Kid-friendly Kik app gives predators direct online access to children
Police say many parents have 'no clue' about potential dangers
Within minutes of downloading Kik, a popular messaging app, 13-year-old Alicia started getting random texts from strangers wanting to know about her sexual fantasies.
"I'm 29 and I want to be your boyfriend," read one of the first messages appearing on the smartphone.
"How obedient are you?" asked someone with the username MasterDaddy.
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"Let me look out for you on here," texted another who wanted to "swap live pics" despite admitting he was old enough to be Alicia's father.
He sent a photo, purportedly of himself, smiling awkwardly, as proof.
"Age is a state of mind" coaxed the man, who appeared to to be in his late 50s.
Alicia didn't reciprocate, though, because she doesn't exist.
CBC News created her online persona and profile picture to see what kind of unsolicited messages children are receiving when they use Kik, a free mobile service for sharing texts, images and videos anonymously.
While there are safety concerns with other apps, police and users say Kik is particularly popular with younger teens and children whose parents may not be as familiar with it as they are with social media sites like Facebook and Instagram.
Kik Interactive Inc, the company that created it seven years ago in Waterloo, Ont., says it has 275 million users who are on the the app for an average of 35 minutes per session.
"The problem I have with Kik in particular is the ability for strangers to reach out to strangers," said Det.-Sgt. Paul Krawczyk of the Toronto Police Service's child exploitation unit.
Unlike many other messaging apps, Kik offers free, unlimited texting, along with games featuring animated characters and juvenile emojis which appeal to kids.
Kik also allows users to send messages directly to other users, without first approving them on a friend or contact list.
Police say there's a lack of parental checks and controls with Kik, and some other apps, which is one of the reasons predators are drawn to them.
Just last week, a man in Richmond, B.C., was convicted for distributing child pornography and internet luring.
Police say Stephen Reha convinced at least four girls between the ages of 13 to 16 whom he met on Kik to send him explicit photos of themselves. He then distributed the photos to other people who had the app.
"People just go on there and they ask you overly sexual questions," said Desiree, an 18-year-old from Toronto who described Kik as "really creepy after a while."
It got so bad that Desiree and her mother went to police to report one particularly aggressive user that Desiree was unable to block.
She said police told them they "can't really do anything to find him."
"We have lots of investigations involving Kik," said Krawczyk, who has worked on cases with children as young as eight years old.
"It's not just KiK," he noted. "If they're not using KiK they'll find something else."
Recently, Kik has been cited in numerous criminal investigations throughout North America, with law enforcement officials and educators warning of its potential dangers.
In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking at what role Kik may have played in the recent kidnapping and slaying of a 13-year-old girl from Virginia.
An 18-year-old man who allegedly targeted Nicole Lovell on Kik has been charged, along with a female accomplice, in the teen's killing.
U.S. media reported that the FBI sent an emergency seizure order to Kik as part of its investigation into Lovell's death.
The company declined CBC's request for an interview, referring instead to the "Guide for Parents" on its website.
The guide explains things like how the app works and what parents can do if their child has sent or received inappropriate messages.
It advises parents who want to monitor their child's account to "ask your teen not to delete chats, and to provide you with access to their device."
The "Guide for Law Enforcement" says, "Kik is rated 9+ in the iTunes Store and Teen in the Google Play store, and a user must enter their birth date and be 13 years of age or older in order to register a Kik account."
Krawczyk said the policy does little to prevent even younger users from creating accounts, either on their own or with the help of older siblings and friends.
He was troubled but by no means shocked by some of the messages CBC showed him from Alicia's account.
"We're only seeing the beginning here. If you really developed a relationship ... there would be more pressure on," he said.
"And that's how children get caught up in it and next thing you know it`s too late."
Krawczyk said Kik has become more receptive to requests for information in police investigations, despite earlier difficulties when Kik launched seven years ago.
Still, Kik's legal guide makes clear that the company does not "have access to the text of Kik conversations" and reserves the right "pursuant to applicable law to refuse to provide information."
Krawczyk feels parents need to be more aware of what apps their children are using and how they work.
He recalled a recent case involving an eight-year-old girl who sent "inappropriate pictures" to a stranger. When he asked the girl's parents for her password, Krawczyk said they had to ask their daughter to tell them what it was.
"It is the most frustrating part of my job — parents who have no clue what their kids are doing," he said.
He encourages parents to let children know they should tell someone if they receive random messages from people they don't know.
"If your child does get in a situation hopefully they'll feel comfortable enough to come to you and say: 'I got in over my head ... can you look at this?' And we've had that, and that's good," he said.