PDT Staff Writer
Scioto County Sheriff’s Detective Jodi Conkel, who daily deals with crimes committed by sexual predators, is warning about the dangers of children making contact with online predators.
The sell line on the mobile app Skout website reads - “With one click, you can discover new friends at the local neighborhood bar, at a concert at Madison Square Garden or on a bus tour in Barcelona. Skout connects you to other users nearby or continents away, in more than 100 countries, whether you’re looking for new friends or activity partners.”
Now, as the result of the alleged rape of a 15-year-old Portsmouth girl, a 12-year-old girl in Escondido, Calif., as well as the sexual assault of a 13-year-old boy in Waukesia, Wisc., the company has had to re-think their policy.
“The bad thing is that some of these sites have an age limit, but these kids get on there and they lie about their age. They change their date of birth, and a lot of parents help them,” Conkel said. “On sites like Facebook, they help them fake birthdays so that kids can have these. The biggest danger is that you have no clue who you are talking to. You can think you are talking to a 15-year-old kid, and you’re really talking to a 50-year-old man.”
Skout offers a location-based dating and flirting app, which is designed for adults, but they also began allowing under-18 participants, giving them their own service, thinking the groups would stay within their own boundaries. Apparently that is not what happened.
Gene R. Zimmerman, 37, of Haverhill was arraigned last week in Portsmouth Municipal Court in the rape of a 15-year-old Portsmouth girl he connected with on an internet chat room on Skout.
“That’s what predators do,” Conkel said. “They get on these websites and try to lure these kids in, find out if they are home alone, and what they’re doing. These kids are easy targets for them. These predators have nothing to do but sit around all day long, and they know that kids are going to lie about their age and get on these websites and talk, and they start luring them in. “
The Scioto County Sheriff’s Office was called to Southern Ohio Medical Center on Tuesday, May 29, where the girl, whose identity was not released, reported being sexually assaulted.
Scioto County Sheriff Marty V. Donini said detectives told him the girl met Zimmerman in the internet chat room, where he led her to believe he would take her to a friend’s house in Ashland, Ky. Deputies said the alleged victim only knew Zimmerman by his screen name, “Bubbles.” The victim reported she was taken to an apartment in Haverhill, where she was sexually assaulted. She was treated at SOMC and then sent to Adena Medical Center in Chillicothe.
Conkel said the Zimmerman case is not the first of its kind in the area.
“A couple of years ago we had a case where a girl at one of the local high schools was posting pictures of herself in her softball uniform and her cheerleading uniform, and a predator actually got on and Googled the school, and showed up at a ballgame and followed her home, and put signs in her yard,” Conkel said. “He was from out of town - he was fascinated with her. Basically he was able to track her, because even if you don’t tell them where you live, all these kids get on Facebook and those places and post pictures of themselves in their cheerleading uniforms, softball uniforms. How hard is it for someone to figure it out?”
She said parents who are concerned about their children being exposed to online predators can do several things.
“The main thing is to keep an eye on them,” Conkel said. “A lot of them (parents) think that if their kids are not on the computer they can’t do this stuff. A lot of them don’t realize that these smart phones, these iphones, these cellphones are just like having a computer at your fingertips. I know some parents who actually take cellphones away from their children at 8 (p.m.) o’clock at night, and they put them up. That way their kids are not doing what they’re not supposed to, and they are not lying in bed texting all night when they should be sleeping.”
Now Skout CEO Christian Wiklund says he has cutoff access to anyone under 18.
“In recent weeks, we’ve learned of several incidents involving a few bad actions trying to take advantage of some of our younger members,” Wiklund told the New York Times. “We thought carefully about what to do. We know how much Skout means to our teen community, and, at Skout, our community means everything to us. For now, we believe that there’s only one thing we can do: until we can design better protections, we are temporarily shutting down the under-18 community.”
Frank Lewis may be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 232, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.