Investigators say more predators using Snapchat to victimize children

Posted at 9:40 PM, Dec 08, 2017
and last updated 2017-12-08 23:21:33-05

Almost 180 million people around the world use Snapchat, and a growing number of those users are people looking to victimize children.  The I-Team discovered law enforcement in Wisconsin is looking into more of these cases than ever before as predators know Snapchat is a popular app for middle and high school kids.  They also know it can be tough for law enforcement to track them. Something investigators say these perpetrators take advantage of. 

Maddie Heidvogel is in middle school. She got her first cell phone over the summer and started using social media, like Snapchat. "I normally just send funny pictures," Maddie pointed out. Using the app comes with rules; Maddie can't add friends she doesn't know in person.  Mom Beth constantly worries about what's out there, "they know where to go, to try to prey upon young girls or young people in general."  People like two Wisconsin men, convicted of federal child pornography charges.  Both used Snapchat.  An investigation found Ricky Olson even created fake accounts to contact a 12-year-old.

Matt Joy leads the DOJ's Internet Crimes Against Children task force.  He told us Snapchat is a place for these predators to go to meet children.  His investigators are seeing child pornography, enticement, extortion, and sextortion play out on Snapchat.  And there are a growing number of cases across Wisconsin.  

Cybertips coming in from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children have jumped.  In 2014 just one was reported to Wisconsin's DOJ.  In 2015 there were 47 cybertips, and in 2016 the DOJ had 48 tips related to Snapchat.

The way the app works can cause problems for investigators trying to stop pedophiles.  "If we don't have all of the pieces, if something's missing, it can be problematic," Joy told us.  Snapchat's disappearing messages make evidence harder to find. Law enforcement has to act fast if it wants that info.  Something Joy said predators take advantage of, "these folks are doing research too.  They know what companies may or may not be retaining.  They communicate which ones could be problematic for law enforcement." 

Snap Inc, the parent company of Snapchat, said it's committed to assisting law enforcement investigations, "as the law requires."  The company will also keep different types of user information if it gets a valid request.  And in its Transparency Report, Snap Inc. shows it had more than 37 hundred criminal, legal requests in the U.S. through June of this year.  In 82% of those requests it claims some data was produced.

Even though she respects her parent's Snapchat rules, Maddie's older brother and sister follow her on the app.  Just to make sure she stays safe. 

That's something investigators stress, parents should use the apps their kids are using.  Follow them so you can see who they're talking to, what they're doing on the app.  If you see what you think is criminal activity on Snapchat, report it immediately.  In most cases law enforcement has a small window to get the information.

Snapchat links:

To report abuse

Parent's Guide

Social Media Resources:

Common Sense Media

Protect Kids Online Podcast/WI DOJ

Cyberbullying Research Center