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Hales Corners sexual assault prompts shutdown of mobile flirting app

June 13, 2012

The makers of a popular location-based cellphone app for flirting and dating have shut it down after reports that at least three child sexual assaults were set up through the service, including one in Milwaukee County.

The crimes illustrate how sexual predators can quickly exploit advances in social media, prompting calls for ever greater caution among users, inventors and monitors.

The founder of Skout.com announced Tuesday that the company had temporarily suspended its under-18 community because even its stringent security measures could not stop at least a few bad actors.

"We are extremely sorry about this, but we don't believe we have any other choice," CEO Christian Wiklund wrote in a blog post. "We will not compromise the safety of our community, and right now, our concerns are too significant to simply stand by and do nothing."

A local incident may have been the final straw for Wiklund's San Francisco-based operation.

In that case, a 21-year-old Waukesha man, Daniel R. Schmidt, was charged June 5 with sexually assaulting a 13-year-old boy he met via Skout.com.

According to the criminal com plaint, Schmidt said he was 16 to gain access to the under-18 group, where the victim was online via BoyAhoy, a Skout.com app aimed at gay men. They exchanged messages, and the victim sent Schmidt a photo of his genitals before they agreed to meet.

Schmidt then picked up the boy in Muskego and drove him to Hales Corners Park, where a woman walking her dog noticed them engaging in sexual conduct and called police. An officer confronted Schmidt and the boy as they emerged from a secluded area of the park.

The other cases involved a 37-year-old Ohio man charged with raping a 13-year-old girl he met while posing as a teenager on Skout.com, and a missing 12-year-old California girl found with a 24-year-old man after her mother found Skout.com messages on the girl's cellphone.

Skout.com was founded in 2007, according to its website. "Life is short, you are busy and people are having fun without you right now. So start Skouting and find your party, anytime, anywhere," reads the company's slogan. In 2011, it claimed 5 million members. In April, it attracted a $22 million investment from a major Silicon Valley venture capital firm.

App users can enter the age and gender of the kind of people they'd like to meet, then find out other users who are on within a certain radius of the user's location, usually within walking distance, and send them messages, photos and virtual gifts. Recipients can choose to respond or not.

Though intended for adults, Skout.com was attracting many younger users, and about a year ago, the company launched a service for those younger than 18 with even more safeguards, security and monitoring for inappropriate language and images, according to Wiklund's blog.

As of Wednesday afternoon, nearly 900 people had posted comments on Wiklund's announcement that he was shutting down the teen community, most lamenting the loss and complaining that they suddenly have no way of contacting friends.

Wiklund told The New York Times that he learned of the three criminal cases from local news reports, and that Skout.com reached out to the law enforcement agencies involved to offer any help it could.

Schmidt's case was first reported by Muskego Patch on Saturday. He is free on $5,000 bail.

His attorney, Jonathan LaVoy of Brookfield, said Wednesday he was unaware the case was now part of a national news story. He said he had no comment on the case ahead of preliminary examination.

Eric Szatkowski, a state Department of Justice special agent assigned to the Internet Crimes Against Children task force, hasn't seen a case involving Skout.com before but assumed the site was being misused.

"I've been saying for about a dozen years now, that as every piece of digital technology hits the market, a predator is going to find a way to use it to go after kids," Szatkowski said, starting with chat rooms, then social networks to online gaming and live webcam services such as Skype.

He found the location-based aspect of mobile apps such as Skout.com of particular concern.

"Can someone hang out at Summerfest and just troll from there? Can you imagine State Fair? Noah's Ark at the Dells? It's frightening," he said.

Szatkowski said the Skout.com suspension should be a wake-up call to parents about carefully monitoring everything their children do with technology.

"There are tools out there, but parents seem so behind the technology eight-ball at times," he said.

***

TIP FOR PARENTS

The suspension of Skout.com should alert parents to monitor everything their children do with technology, said Eric Szatkowski, a state Department of Justice special agent on the Internet Crimes Against Children task force.

Service providers generally allow parents to set all kinds of restrictions and even get copied on text messages, he said.

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