This summer, a 21-year-old man from Fair Oaks, California, was arrested for sexually assaulting two girls that he met on a popular social networking app called MeetMe.com.
The young man, Orest Shaynyuk, who posted a topless profile picture on Facebook, allegedly created a false profile on MeetMe.com by posing as a 16-year-old boy. According to federal documents, he used the site to send provocative, sexually explicit messages and photos to a 12-year-old girl, who he later had sex with (she claimed he was aware of her real age). Shortly after, a similar case emerged between Shaynyuk and a 15-year-old girl; both of whom alleged that they met him on MeetMe.com.
Now, allegations against the social networking app are making their way to San Francisco. This month, City Attorney Dennis Herrera sued MeetMe.com, saying that the site enables predators like Shaynyuk to target minors. The app utilizes GPS so that users can sign on and instantly find others nearby.
Herrera argued that the geo-tagging, coupled with unlawful publication of minors’ photos and profile information, violates state law. In the past year, according to the lawsuit, there have been at least three California sex-crimes cases where a juvenile victim connected with an adult on MeetMe.com. The Executive Director of the company, Geoff Cook, has declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said in a statement published in The Chronicle, “We care deeply about the safety of all of MeetMe’s users.”
But the problem with the site isn’t just that it publishes this information, or even that it has a special filter enabling users to sift through gender and age (read: search for 13-year-old girls). Perhaps the most troubling part of the whole thing is that it’s extremely easy to pull off Shaynyuk’s ploy. The signup page is simple: Input your name, email address, password, postal code, gender and date of birth (ranging from 1900-2014), and voila! Now you can, in the words of the company, “make new friends and meet new people near you!”
According to Herrera’s complaint, approximately 25 percent of MeetMe.com’s user base is under the age of 18. The site only allows users to search for other people within their age range (13-17, for example), but it’s not much of an impediment to users who are willing to lie about their age.
And the signup process is astonishingly easy. I logged in with my Facebook account, which immediately synced all of my personal information and uploaded my profile photo. Then I navigated to the “Local” page, which brought up hundreds of photos of nearby users, as well as their precise distance from me. One guy — let’s call him Alex — from “Mission District, CA,” was just 700 feet away. I was sitting in an office at 22nd and Mission and there were countless users (the majority male) in the general vicinity. I clicked on the purple “Filter” button to refine my results, and realized that I couldn’t search for anyone outside of my age range (or younger than 18). This must have been Shaynyuk’s problem.
So I cancelled that account and created a new one. This time, I twisted the truth and changed my birthdate to 1998, placing me squarely in the age range that predators often target. Within an hour, I had three new messages: “What’s up?” “Heyyy,” and “Thanks for the add!” (Note: I didn’t add anyone). When I clicked on the “Local” page this time, I immediately zeroed in on several users who did not look age appropriate — most notably, the sallow, heavily bearded “indie musician” routinely posting photos of himself smoking American Spirit cigarettes. And while the vast majority did appear high school-aged, at least from their profile pictures, it wouldn’t be hard for users to bend the rules and post false pictures of themselves, or shots from a younger age.
The site also lets users see a potential mate’s chat history by clicking on their profile photo. According to Herrera’s complaint, “These publicly viewable chats not infrequently include questions about what pornographic pictures a teenage girl would be willing to send or other graphic sexual content.” I didn’t see any of those chats while online, but I didn’t stick around for too long. Shortly after going through my inbox, I deactivated my account.
From the outside, MeetMe doesn’t look all that different from the many other social networking sites that are also open to minors. But not all of them have the explicit goal of connecting strangers. Herrera noted the distinctions in a recent Chronicle article: “It’s very different from other social networking sites like Facebook or Myspace that are intended for users to reconnect and stay in touch with people they already know. The purpose of MeetMe is to allow strangers to interact and meet online.”
Ly Rivera, a customer service representative at Verizon Wireless on 2654 Mission Street, said that she regularly sees parents who are worried about their children’s virtual footprints and want to track their phone use. “I get it all the time,” she said. “Parents are concerned about what their kids are doing.”
To quell their fears, many parents opt for the Verizon FamilyBase plan, which allows them to see who is included on their children’s contact list, who and when they are calling and texting, and what apps they are using and for how long. They can also control web content and set up email alerts, such as, “call during night hours,” informing them when different lines had phone conversations and with whom. And, those with iPhones can also get information about their children’s computer activity (emails, websites visited, etc.) if they’re linked to their iTunes account.
“Almost all of the people that are interested in this are parents with teenagers,” Rivera said. “Every day I set up around six or seven.” She noted that Verizon Family Plan customers could also set up similar alerts for their spouses. “It is kinda creepy,” she speculated. “But if you really want your own privacy then you have to get your own line.”
Now, it’s just easier to get caught.