HOUSTON, TX - “Stranger danger” concerns have shifted from the street corner to cyberspace, according to internet crime investigators. They say with new apps coming all the time, online predators are always trying to stay one step ahead of police.
And mom and dad.
"Strangers these days are coming right through your DSL line, hey come in through your wifi,” said Sgt. Jeff Lee with the Harris County Precinct Four Constable Office. “You know, it's like a ghost that can come into our house and your kids' brains and drive a wedge between you and your child."
That wedge can happen over time. It’s a methodical manipulation to lure your child in, often over messaging apps like Kik, Blendr or Whisper, which have no age restrictions and are anonymous.
"You just never reallly know who that other person is,” Sgt. Lee said.
“People pretend to be all kinds of things,” he said.
It's why investigators also warn against dating apps, such as Tinder, Zoosk, or Down, which promotes itself as a way to find people to get down with.
It all can be overwhelming for parents trying to protect their children.
"The common reaction from parents is they go, ‘This is just oo much for me, I'm just going to put my head under the covers and wait until the teenager years are over," said Donna Clark Love.
Clark Love said that mindset is not the answer. She has trained and educated thousands of Texas parents and students about online dangers.
"The right answer is, as a parent, you can monitor your kids online and on their phone,” Clark Love said,
But beware--kids try to outsmart their parents.
A common smartphone icon that looks like a calculator is really is a facade for the app "secret safe," which is used to hide photos and videos from parents.
Experts also said to be on the lookout for “disappearing” messaging apps, which self-delete messages after they are sent. While most parents are aware of Snapchat, other similar apps include Kaboom, Telegram, Speakon, and Bleep.
But what if your child rebels with accusations of “you’re invading my privacy?”
"Parents can respond with 'you may be doing everything ok, but I need to know what's coming in, I need to know if someone is harming you or threatening you or harassing you," Clark Love said.
There are dozens of parental software products on the market to monitor your child’s smartphone activity. Some of the more popular packages are Mobile Spy, The Phone Sheriff, Qustodio and Witigo.
The software allows you to block apps, track what sites your child goes to, who they text and what they say, and even show you what photos and videos they take on the smartphone. Experts said there is an important balance between so-called “helicopter parenting” and having an open dialogue with your child. They recommend, early on, to establish that having a smartphone is a privilege, not a right, and that privilege comes with ground rules.