She was 14, he was 38. Did she know who she was talking to on her school-issued Chromebook?
North Carolina teen Savannah Childress is back home now - 10 days after she was kidnapped by a man posing as a teenager on the notorious chat app Emerald Chat.
The predator, William Ice, shot and killed himself after a shootout with police. He was wanted in connection with a string of other child predator cases.
Ice "met" Savannah on a site called Emerald Chat, one of many free “chat with strangers” apps that’s attracting kids - and the creeps who seek to prey on them.
The app bills itself as “The New Omegle” - which should really tell you all you need to know.
Omegle has been consistently identified by cyber experts as the worst of the worst, with a well established reputation for smut, stalking and grooming.
Visitors to the app will be struck that Omegle’s developers not only admit these problems - they practically brag about them.
Emerald Chat carries on brazenly in the same tradition.
“In the modern world it’s so fast paced it’s often really hard to meet new people … Emerald was built to help people meet each other … Whether it's just friends you're looking for or something more. You can find it on Emerald at the click of a button.”
At the moment, that button will have to be on a browser, because interestingly, the app is not currently available on either the App Store or the Play Store - according to the website it’s “coming soon.”
But a mobile version can be downloaded on AppYeet, an online “crack” platform used mainly for downloading premium apps and game hacks for free.
The tip of the virtual iceberg
Kidnapper William Ice, who went by the pseudonym “Will Hedglin” on Emerald Chat was known to be grooming at least ten other children at the time of Savannah’s disappearance.
A police investigation showed Savannah was using her school-issued laptop to communicate with him on multiple platforms.
That’s not surprising, as predators will routinely lure children onto different apps to cover their tracks. And there’s no shortage of chat apps out there. Some of the most dangerous include
How to protect your teen
"Teens will say they deserve privacy online, that who they’re talking to or what they’re doing is their business," Family Zone cyber expert and ex-undercover detective Brett Lee explains. "This is rubbish. You as their parent have every right to know who they’re talking to and what they’re doing."
"It’s not about not trusting your kids. It's about not trusting everyone else on the internet," he adds.
"From my experience, it’s not the kids we cannot trust, because most kids trust their gut and make good choices. But these criminals are incredibly manipulative, and many are extremely tech savvy - which means they’re even better at tricking our kids."
Lee recommends taking an active approach to cyber safety in the home. "Set clear rules and boundaries. Starting these when they’re young helps, but it’s never too late to start," he advises.
"We know kids thrive on boundaries in the real world and the same applies to the online world. Parental controls provide those boundaries."
And the most important boundary? Simply switching the internet off on teen's devices at bedtime. "With that one action, you are dramatically reducing their risk of being contacted or groomed by a predator."
Main photo credit: Multiple Sources: Childress Family, Police Task Force
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