(WSVN) - The coronavirus pandemic has children connecting virtually with each other, but a South Florida father says he was floored by the website he found his young daughter using. 7’s Karen Hensel has this warning to parents in tonight’s 7 Investigates.
One blog describes it as the “Wild West” of online communication.
It’s called Omegle, a website with the tag line “Talk to strangers!”
This father says he caught his 9-year-old daughter doing just that.
Stephen Engasser, father: “I walked into my daughter’s room, and she closed the lid on her laptop, and I lifted it up, and she wasn’t doing her homework. She was chatting with someone, and it was a grown man.”
Stephen Engasser, a U.S. Navy veteran, says he asked his daughter how she ended up on Omegle, which is not a new website, but was new to him.
Stephen Engasser: “When I asked her, ‘How did you find this website? Because I’ve never heard of it,’ she says, ‘Oh, my friend found it on TikTok.'”
Videos with #Omegle have eight billion — yes, billion — views on the popular app TikTok.
Omegle’s homepage says it’s a “great way to meet new friends, even while practicing social distancing.”
Users are connected randomly and can immediately start video chatting, and although the website says you must be 13 years old and have parental permission to participate, no registration is required.
Stephen Engasser: “You’ve got to alert parents out there who have kids. It’s very dangerous.”
The website itself seems to acknowledge the danger: “Predators have been known to use Omegle, so please be careful,” and in small print at the bottom of the page, an even more dire warning: “Use Omegle at your own peril.”
Lt. Andrea Tianga, BSO: “These websites are really becoming a concern for law enforcement, especially a website like Omegle where the premise is to meet with strangers.”
Broward Sheriff’s Office Lt. Andrea Tianga is part of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, a national partnership between local, state and federal law enforcement.
Lt. Andrea Tianga: “We want to trust our kids. We want to trust our teenagers with their online activity, but I kinda think that’s like trusting a 1-year-old around a pool.”
Chatting on Omegle can be anonymous, but Tianga says if children and teens volunteer personal information to strangers, like their social media handles, trouble can follow.
Lt. Andrea Tianga: “Well, now you’ve given that bad guy access to your family photos, personal photos of you, and a lot of time, these girls are getting, we call it ‘sextorted,’ to get worse and worse and worse.”
How bad can it get?
Omegle is mentioned in an array of Department of Justice news releases on criminal prosecutions, including a former elementary school music teacher in North Carolina sentenced to 10 years in a child pornography case.
And a South Florida man “engaged in sextortion sentenced to 139 years in prison.”
“Sextortion” is blackmailing someone by threatening to post their sexually explicit pictures.
Karen Hensel: “How do we, as parents, stay ahead of this?”
Lt. Andrea Tianga: “You know, I wish I had the magic answer. I wish I could write a book because maybe I’d be a millionaire. None of us have the answer. I think parents need to check search histories incredibly often.”
Stephen did just that on his daughter’s computer and warned her of the dangers.
When he logged on to see what she had been seeing, Stephen says he was shocked and scared.
Stephen Engasser: “I immediately was connected to people all over the world, but most of them were grown men, and some of these grown men were not wearing clothes, which sickened me.”
This father has since blocked the website.
7News was unable to reach Omegle for comment.
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