Kik is cooperating in the investigation, and its officials say they responded to “multiple emergency requests” from the FBI for information that helped lead to the arrests of the two Virginia Tech students.
The accusations are beyond chilling: two Virginia Tech freshmen charged with the premeditated kidnapping and killing of a 13-year-old girl, who, authorities say, communicated with her killer online.
The way they chatted — on a wildly popular messaging app, Kik — has increasingly become a source of concern for law enforcement.
The death of Nicole Lovell, a liver-transplant and cancer survivor from Blacksburg, Va., has put Kik — widely used by U.S. teenagers but not as well known to adults as Snapchat or Instagram — in the spotlight at a time law-enforcement officials say it has been linked to a growing number of abuse cases. Neighbors say that the day before she died, Lovell showed them Kik messages she had exchanged with an 18-year-old man she was to meet that night.
Kik is cooperating in the investigation. Its officials say they responded to “multiple emergency requests” from the FBI for information that helped lead to the arrests of the students, David Eisenhauer, 18, and Natalie Keepers, 19, both aspiring engineers from Maryland. Experts in Internet crime caution that the app is just one of many digital platforms abused by all manner of criminals, from small-time drug dealers to terrorists.
Most Read Nation & World Stories
- A Kansas boy entered a unique insect at the state fair. It triggered a federal investigation
- As experts warn of brutal flu 'twindemic,' here are 8 things to know about getting your flu shot
- Sports on TV & radio: Local listings for Seattle games and events
- A woman saw a gynecologist for nine years. Then she discovered he was her biological father, lawsuit says
- Taliban shootout in palace sidelines leader who dealt with U.S.
But law-enforcement officials say Kik — used by 40 percent of U.S. teenagers, by the company’s estimate — goes further than most widely used apps in shielding its users from view, often making it hard for investigators to know who is using it, or how. (Yik Yak is another popular app under fire for its use of anonymous messages.)
“Kik is the problem app of the moment,” said David Frattare, commander of the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which includes hundreds of law-enforcement agencies. “We tell parents about Kik, and to them it’s some earth-shattering news, and then it turns out it’s been on their kid’s phone for months and months. And as a law-enforcement agency, the information that we can get from Kik is extremely limited.”
Kik’s appeal to young people goes far beyond anonymity. Teenagers like its special emoji and other features. It offers free and unlimited texting. And like AOL Instant Messenger and MySpace before it, Kik is a space that parents are unlikely to know about. It is also a place where inappropriate sexual content and behavior can flourish.
Cases involving Kik in just the past two weeks include:
• A St. Louis man charged with using Kik to exchange child pornography.
• A western New York man charged with finding a 14-year-old girl through Kik and, posing as a teenager, sending her sexually explicit messages and trying to get her to meet him.
• An Alabama man charged with statutory rape and the attempted kidnapping of a 14-year-old girl he contacted on Kik.
• A Colorado man charged with taking a 13-year-old Connecticut girl to a hotel and sexually assaulting her, after chatting and arranging the meeting on Kik.
“The Kik app has become so popular, it’s probably the one where law enforcement has seen the most activity,” said Leslie Rutledge, the Arkansas attorney general, who issued a public plea last year to parents in her state to educate themselves about their children’s online habits after two Arkansas men used Kik to solicit nude photos from underage girls — and an undercover investigator.
Kik, founded in 2009 and based in Canada, aspires to become the Western version of WeChat, a hugely successful messaging service in China that offers free texting, e-commerce and content delivery. Its main appeal is privacy and anonymity: The app is free, and allows people to find strangers and communicate with them anonymously, through a user name.
“We view user names and anonymity as a safe way to connect with people you meet on the Internet,” said Rod McLeod, a Kik spokesman.
The company is taking a variety of steps, including sponsoring an annual conference on crimes against children and posting a law-enforcement guide on its website, to “assist in preventing child exploitation,” said Lisa van Heugten, who was hired two years ago and helped form a special Kik division devoted to fielding law-enforcement requests.
Kik estimates it has 275 million users worldwide, with 70 percent of them in the United States. But the anonymity and secrecy that make Kik appealing also pose serious challenges for law enforcement. The app asks for the user’s real name and email address, but it works even if those are fictitious, and the user does not have to supply a phone number.
Unlike some competing apps, Kik says it does not have the ability to view written messages between users, or to show them to the police. It can view pictures and videos, but retains them only until the recipient’s device has received the message. Those practices are legal.
With a court order or in an emergency — as in Lovell’s death — the company can provide authorities with a log of a user’s sent and received messages, and in some cases can supply the user’s Internet Protocol address, giving a physical location.
David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, said research suggests that social media has not spawned an uptick in violent crimes involving children, but cases involving pornography are on the rise. So are arrests.
Finkelhor cautions against “technophobia,” saying character traits — not technology — make young people vulnerable. Those who are socially isolated, who have conflict with their parents, who are bullied in school or who are depressed are “at higher risk,” he said, “both in face-to-face and electronic environments.”
Those risk factors were clearly present in the abduction in Virginia of Lovell, whose mother, Tammy Weeks, has said she was bullied in school, in part because of the tracheotomy scar she bore.
And they were a factor in a November case involving Kik in Ohio, where a 15-year-old girl got in a car with a man she knew only through Kik, who drove her more than 500 miles from her home in Cleveland.
Almost a month later, police and FBI burst into a house in Missouri, freed the girl and arrested the man they said had held her captive, raped her and video-recorded the act. After her rescue, she spoke on the “Dr. Phil” show, which hid her identity. She said she had been mourning the death of her stepfather, and was upset that her mother had moved in with a boyfriend.
On Kik, she found someone, claiming to be a man in his 20s, who offered her help and gave her the attention she craved, she said.
That man, law enforcement officials said, was Christopher Schroeder, 41. He destroyed her phone, according to the FBI, and drove her to his home in Marthasville, west of St. Louis.
With her phone gone, there was no way for the police to track the girl’s movements or tie her to the man. But weeks later, law-enforcement officials said, her abductor got careless and, posing as the girl on a Facebook account, he contacted her friends. With help from Facebook, investigators read the messages and tracked down Schroeder, who has pleaded not guilty to charges in federal and state court.
Investigators learned only later that the girl had met Schroeder on Kik. Asked about the odds of finding her if the man had not gone onto Facebook, Frattare, of the Ohio crime task force, said, “In my opinion, it would have been slim to none.”