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Three child rapes cast chill on popular flirting app

Skout founder Christian Wiklund said he had suspended the service for minors,pushes for parental vigilance

Written by New York Times | San Francisco | Published: June 14, 2012 12:34:28 am

NICOLE PERLROTH

In the latest cautionary tale of the risks of using social networks to connect with strangers,three men have been accused of raping children they met using a mobile app designed for flirting between adults.

The rape charges startled managers of Skout,the social networking app,because they thought they had adequate safeguards in place. The flirting app that connects people with strangers nearby was attracting millions of new users every month. Last year,the company started a more protected service for 13 to 17-year-olds after noticing that minors had gained access to the app.

The company,based in San Francisco,got a vote of confidence in April when it secured $22 million in financing from Andreessen Horowitz,one of Silicon Valley’s leading venture capital firms.

But in each rape case,the men are accused of posing as teenagers in the Skout forum.

In one case,a 15-year-old Ohio girl said she had been raped by a 37-year-old man.

In the second,a 24-year-old man has been accused of raping a 12-year-old girl in Escondido,Calif.

In the third,a 21-year-old man from Waukesha,Wis.,is facing charges that he sexually assaulted a 13-year-old boy.

“I’m disgusted by what’s happened here,” Christian Wiklund,Skout’s founder,said on Monday. “One case is too many. When you have three,it looks like a pattern. This is my worst fear.”

Wiklund said he had suspended the service for minors,which made up a “significant” portion of Skout’s member base,while he worked with security experts to add better safeguards.

Social networking apps and sites often forbid minors from using them or sequester them from adult users,but find it nearly impossible to control who goes where. A majority of Skout’s users sign in through Facebook,which officially forbids members under 13.

Facebook has acknowledged that younger children still find ways onto the site.

“We’re seeing more of these cases,” said Lt Craig Carter of the Escondido police. “Parents need to be aware that their kids could be on these websites. In this case,if her parents had taken her phone and looked at her messages on Skout,they would have immediately seen inappropriate responses for someone who is 12 years old.”

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